Review: Weilerstein, Barnatan find the thread in Beethoven
By Harvey Steiman
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan applied impeccable technique and a gently persuasive approach to two Beethoven sonatas in a musically compelling Aspen Music Festival recital beamed live from Baker-Baum Concert Hall in La Jolla, California.
Longtime recital partners, they have been living in a “pod” at Weilerstein’s home near the venue with her husband (the conductor Rafael Payareas), as Barnatan gears up for his second season as music director of the La Jolla Music Society Summerfest, streaming next month. That proximity certainly helped put them on the same page for this program
The short (less than one hour) concert consisted of two of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas. Though the darker, denser fifth in D major carries more weight — it even ends with a fugue — it was the conversational and light-spirited third in A major that came off as more beguiling. At least it was for me, thanks to that memorable experience early in my regular visits to Aspen for the summer festival.
Weilerstein and Barnatan worked their way through the music Sunday with impressive unanimity, precise articulation, and a feel for the narrative. On a fully lit stage in the empty hall, they created moments of serenity until their different paths led to pauses at some points, and at other moments steely eyed confrontation. A listener could sense the tension build and recede winningly.
The second movement Scherzo, with its syncopations and off-beats, danced merrily as if in celebration of newfound amity at the end of the first movement. (The video director’s quick cuts from one camera to another during this movement proved more intrusive than exciting.) The short Adagio introduced a moment of calm, played with admirable restraint, before deftly decisive playing in the Allegro vivace brought the sonata to juicy finish.
The D major sonata found its bearings quickly in a brilliantly played first movement Allegro that reveled in Beethoven’s generous array of melodies and lively give-and-take between the players. But the meat of this meal came with the expansive Adagio. Marked “with much sentiment of affection,” the music could easily have gone over the top, but Weilerstein and Barnatan reined in any of that and produced a sustained, almost wistful, feeling throughout.
That led to the final fugue, which they seemed to conjure out of the ether. They wended their way through the composer’s own sense of melodic counterpoint, very different from Bach’s. It breathed with a naturalness that made the performance all the more satisfying.