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A Passionate Young Cellist Engages the Ear and the Eye

12.10.08
Inon Barnatan & Alisa Weilerstein, Alisa Weilerstein
The New York Times

At 26 the cellist Alisa Weilerstein can seem mature beyond her years. Though buoyant and youthful, she approaches the works she plays with an oversize presence. Already her musical personality - a combination of curiosity and intensity - is well developed and unmistakable. In a sense Ms. Weilerstein is a throwback to an earlier age of classical performers: not content merely to serve as a vessel for a composer's wishes, she inhabits a piece fully and turns it to her own ends.

She is also great fun to watch, a point made over and over during a recital she presented with Inon Barnatan, 29, a stylish young pianist, at Zankel Hall on Tuesday night. True, an artist's animated stage comportment hardly guarantees an insightful performance. But in Ms. Weilerstein's case, what you see perfectly meshes with what you hear.

In Beethoven's Cello Sonata in D (Op. 102, No. 2), which opened the program, she played with a warm, inviting sound and flawless intonation. Strong chords unapologetically pushed to the edge of coarseness were matched by vehement flashes in her eyes.

When the music turned gentle, Ms. Weilerstein shot coy glances over her shoulder at Mr. Barnatan as she sneaked up on swooning notes. That this pair is temperamentally well matched was demonstrated by a gripping Adagio, taken at a daringly broad pace that sometimes dipped into contemplative silences.

Ms. Weilerstein has made a specialty of Zoltan Kodaly's Sonata for Solo Cello and clearly savors its songfulness and improvisatory flow. Performing from memory, she dug into the work with brilliant technique and an earthy gusto.

After an intermission Mr. Barnatan offered a gracefully rippling account of Chopin's Barcarolle in F sharp, an evocation of a Venetian gondoliers' song. Ms. Weilerstein countered with Osvaldo Golijov's "Omaramor," a tango-inspired solo work by turns seductive and brusque.

The pair closed with Chopin's Sonata for Cello and Piano, a work of such fiendish difficulty that even Chopin was convinced that parts of it might be unplayable. Ms. Weilerstein and Mr. Barnatan put that notion to rest with their poise and passion, and they returned amid thunderous applause to reprise the work's limpid Largo as an encore.