Cellist Weilerstein and pianist Barnatan share mastery in Cleveland recital

Inon Barnatan & Alisa Weilerstein
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Donal Rosenberg

It could have been possible for Alisa Weilerstein to have stolen the limelight. A former Clevelander who recently became an artist-in-residence at the institute, the 27-year-old cellist has skyrocketed to the top of her field. She appears as soloist with orchestras and gives recitals around the world.

But Weilerstein is a consummate artist for whom the music is paramount. Her exceptional colleague Tuesday for this concert in the Mixon Hall Masters Series was Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, whose career also is on a quick ascent. Functioning as equals, they were more than eager to share the surprises, delights and somber beauty in four substantial works.

Weilerstein showed no interest in playing the virtuoso on this occasion. She used the cello as an eloquent messenger for each composer, especially in ruminative passages where the utterances have the aura of private thoughts.

In the slow movement of Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 5, Op. 102, No. 2, for example, Weilerstein conveyed the mournful musings through sounds that were disembodied and distant. Mixon Hall, whose crystalline acoustics reveal everything, was the ideal forum to hear the cellist phrase and touch details with utmost subtlety.

The other two movements of the Beethoven found Weilerstein and Barnatan interweaving lines and passing material back and forth as if engaged in intense debate. The Allegro fugato, a complex succession of quirky ideas, became an exhilarating race to the finish line.

Benjamin Britten wrote his Cello Sonata, Op. 65, for Mstislav Rostropovich, who surely would have hailed the voluble and ethereal performance Weilerstein and Barnatan shaped. They probed the fantasy and fury in the five movements through controlled attention to nuance, color and expressive extremes.

The musicians avoided the urge to show off in an arrangement of Manuel de Falla's Suite Populaire Espagnole without shortchanging the score's temperamental flourishes and tender songfulness. Once again, Weilerstein used her mastery of soft dynamics to go to the core of Falla's reflective statements.

Barnatan was alternately assertive and collegial throughout the program. In Chopin's Sonata in G minor, Op. 65, he showed his technical prowess in florid writing that often raises the piano to the status of soloist.

And yet, the work's four movements also were prime time for two mighty musicians to bask in lyrical and passionate discussion. Their program exemplified chamber-music playing on the highest level.