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Acclaimed chamber music duo in top form at VCU

Inon Barnatan & Alisa Weilerstein
Richmond Times-Dispatch

By Gene Harris

A little rain couldn’t keep a large audience of chamber music lovers away from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Singleton Center on Saturday evening.

They’d come to hear the duo of Alisa Weilerstein, cello, and Inon Barnatan, piano, as they capped off Cellopaloosa VI, VCU’s daylong celebration of the cello in workshops and concerts — and the audience loved what they heard.

Weilerstein and Barnatan, two highly acclaimed artists who concertize separately and together all over the world, presented a program of passionate, melodic and diverse works: Claude Debussy’s “Sonata for Piano and Cello in D minor, L. 135”; Franz Schubert’s “Fantasia in C Major,” D. 934 Op. 159 (originally for piano and violin, transcribed by the artists); seven selections from “24 Preludes for Cello and Piano” by Lera Auerbach (after Shostakovich’s “24 Preludes,” Op. 34”); and “Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor,” Op. 19 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

In each piece, the pair demonstrated spectacular technique, impeccably beautiful phrasing, fervent intensity and a flawless sense of ensemble.

Weilerstein brought forth a glorious palette of colors and sounds, ranging from deep, dark and full-bodied tones and impossibly soft pianissimos to aggressive pizzicatos and perfectly controlled glissandi.

She knows when to use a lot of vibrato, or a little, or none at all, and how to transition seamlessly from one mode to the other. Above all, her playing is passion personified.

Weilerstein is indeed a passionate player, and it shows — but to my mind, a bit too much. Yes, you must play with emotion, and you’re certainly allowed, even encouraged, to show it, but if you overdo the histrionics — the bow slowly arcing through the air long after it has left the strings, for example — you play into the mistaken impression that classical artists take themselves much too seriously, and it reinforces classical music’s “snooty” image.

And not every piece should be played with a furrowed brow and sorrowful countenance.

Barnatan, reading his scores from an electronic tablet perched on the piano’s music rack, played with a sensitive touch and delightful ease, even in thunderous moments and through treacherously rapid passagework. He was riveting.

The Debussy Sonata, though relatively brief, calls for a multitude of string techniques, all beautifully rendered by Weilerstein. The Schubert Fantasia, full of wonderful melodies, featured Barnatan more prominently, especially the third movement, based on Schubert’s song “Sei mir gegrüsst” (“I Greet You”).

The seven Preludes by Auerbach were all gems. And the Rachmaninoff Sonata blazed with glory and virtuosic playing from both artists, bringing the audience to its feet. The duo repeated the third movement for an encore. It all was definitely worth braving the weather.