CD REVIEW: Frédéric Chopin & Sergey Rachmaninov

Inon Barnatan & Alisa Weilerstein
Voix Des Arts

On the heels of a thoughtfully-planned, superbly-produced Deutsche Grammophon recording of the composer's Variations on themes by Arcangelo Corelli and Nicolò Paganini, Universal again honors the artistic legacy of Sergei Rachmaninov with a lovingly-presented DECCA recording of his Opus 19 Sonata for cello and piano and the exquisite Vocalise (Op. 34, No. 14), contrasted by a trio of works in similar veins by Frédéric Chopin. Hearing the music of both composers with this degree of proximity, it is impossible to overlook the extent to which Rachmaninov's part writing was influenced by Chopin's example, and the two geniuses shared a gift for creating melodies that, once heard, never leave the mind. Indeed, the pieces on this disc, played by American cellist Alisa Weilerstein and Tel Aviv-born pianist Inon Barnatan with a level of musical symbiosis that transcends casual partnership, are of that variety of music that lurks in the subconscious like memories waiting to be relived. The spirit of this collaboration is reflected in the music: Chopin had been dead for nearly a quarter-century when Rachmaninov was born, but the older composer's artistic soul might be said to have been resurrected in the work of the younger man. To the extent that composers' souls are enshrined in their music, the spirits of both Chopin and Rachmaninov sing in the selections on this disc, their voices enthrallingly projected by the playing of a pair of exceptionally talented musical communicators.
The passions of the concluding Allegro mosso movement are ambiguous, and the unexaggerated sincerity with which Weilerstein and Barnatan convert them into sound heightens the ambivalence. Rachmaninov was no less accomplished in the art of blending instrumental timbres in his chamber music than in his larger-scaled, imaginatively-orchestrated works, and the robust sounds that Weilerstein and Barnatan coax from their instruments often give the impression that far more than two players are at work. The melodic figurations, as sumptuous as they are sensual, are executed by both musicians with keen focus on the organic cadences of the music. This is also true of Weilerstein's and Barnatan's performance of the rhapsodic Vocalise (Op. 34, No. 14), a piece in which cello and piano interact playfully but with galvanizing unity of purpose. As technicians, Weilerstein and Barnatan are unfailingly nimble-fingered, but it is the keen intelligence of their playing of Rachmaninov's music that refuses to relinquish its grasp on the listener's ears and heart.
To their credit, Weilerstein and Barnatan immerse their playing in Chopin's latent melancholy without wallowing in it. The rhythmic crispness of their playing alleviates the somberness of the music, revealing the glimpses of sunlight that peer through the clouds. In both the Scherzo and its boisterous Trio, the musicians offer playing that exemplifies technical brilliance, but the zenith of their interpretation of Chopin's Sonata is their performance of the Largo movement. Like Mozart and Beethoven, Chopin possessed an extraordinary gift for creating slow movements that remarkably unite emotions of near-operatic intensity with confessional intimacy. It is often far bolder to allow a piece to speak its own language than to attempt to translate it, and Weilerstein and Barnatan further disclose the depths of their artistries by sagaciously respecting Chopin's music. The sense of joy in making music that beams from Weilerstein's and Barnatan's playing of the Sonata's Finale is gladdening, and the precision of their performance is enhanced by the insightfulness of their phrasing. Every smile, sigh, and furtive sorrow that inspired Chopin resounds in this reading of his beautifully-crafted Sonata.
Arranged by the dedicatee of the Sonata, Auguste Franchomme, the Étude in C sharp minor (Op. 25, No. 7) is, as played by Weilerstein and Barnatan, a piece that combines virtuosity with vulnerability. Franchomme’s mastery of the cello enabled him to retain the Étude’s unique structure, and his friendship with Chopin surely contributed to the faithfulness of his preservation of its ethos. Weilerstein gives a stirring account of Franchomme’s cello part, and Barnatan matches her every feat of prowess with his own unassailable finesse. The Introduction et Polonaise brillante for piano and cello in C major (Opus 3)? is among Chopin’s many miniature masterpieces, fully meriting its ‘brillante’ designation. Weilerstein’s and Barnatan’s performance likewise merits the distinction, their shared affection for the music cascading through their playing of the Introduction et Polonaise brillante—as it does through their playing of every piece in this recital.
Listening to this disc again and again, it seems utterly ridiculous that some of Classical Music's most influential advocates perpetuate the falsehood that there are no musicians at work today who are capable of consistently rivaling the performances and interpretations of artists of the past. Boasting of performances by distinguished pairings such as Edmund Kurtz and William Kapell, Zara Nelsova and Artur Balsam, and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky and Lev Oborin, the discography of Rachmaninov’s Sonata for cello and piano, though still an underappreciated work, contains many fine traversals, and the Chopin Sonata has been even more fortunate on records. Still, neither piece has been more blessed in the recording studio than when Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan met before the microphones in Berlin. Yet again in the long history of recorded sound a DECCA release restores confidence in the integrity of contemporary artists. More fundamentally, this is a ravishing recording of fantastic music. Read the rest of the review here