Fort Worth — I can hardly imagine a more polished recital than cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan’s performance at the Kimbell Art Museum Piano Pavilion on Thursday evening, part of The Cliburn season. Polished, yes, but never boring.
Playing from iPads to a regrettably small crowd—I can only hope that Friday evening’s, for the repeat performance, was larger—the duo wowed despite sometimes less than gripping repertoire. Indeed, even after a longer than average recital, multiple curtain calls resulted in an encore that stretched the evening’s length to nearly two-and-a-half hours.
The two began with Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 58. This was a most Romantic rendering of Mendelssohn, with tons of vibrato by Weilerstein and boldly exaggerated dynamics from both. This was not a technically flawless performance, though it was as close as one is likely to hear live: Weilerstein missed a shift or two, and pizzicato in the second movement was not as resonant as it could have been. Still, her tone in lyrical passages was extraordinarily rich, and the level of musicality and technical agility from both musicians was stunning. These two musicians are both skilled collaborators—they made frequent visual contact, and the result was impeccable ensemble.
Watching Weilerstein play is increasingly like attending a master class in technique. For instance, her bow changes are practically inaudible, even in the notoriously unforgiving acoustics of the Renzo Piano Pavilion. Barnatan is a notably relaxed performer, even when he lights technical fireworks—both give the impression of being able to do anything they please on their instruments quite effortlessly.
One amusing note: Weilerstein’s abundant chestnut hair has been the subject of remark by at least one local critic, since it tends to obscure her face when she plays. Thursday, she had clipped the front of her hair back with a barrette, which proceeded to slide out of her hair as the Mendelssohn progressed. Eventually, she pulled the barrette out, flung it across and off the stage, and just let her hair do what it was going to do. (A patron on the front row handed the thrown hair accessory back to her at intermission.)
Second on the program was the Britten Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major, Op. 65. This piece was the first of five major works that Britten wrote for Mstislav Rostropovich. This is a technically daunting piece for both performers. Indeed, Britten even remarked to Rostropovich that he hoped the scherzo-pizzicato second movement was playable. Clearly, it is, at least by players as remarkable as Weilerstein and Barnatan. Weilerstein’s pizzicato filled the hall here, unlike in the Mendelssohn. In between the playful second movement and the third movement Elegia, Weilerstein rosined her bow, an odd bit of stagecraft perhaps intended to create a longer pause to accentuate the extreme change in mood. (Or maybe her bow, unused in the second movement, just needed a bit of rosin. Who knows?) In the Elegia, Barnatan exhibited a magnificent sense of line. In the fourth movement Marcia, Weilerstein showed off her outstanding ricochet technique. These are truly musicians of the highest order.
Weilerstein and Barnatan are both, collaboratively and individually, proponents of contemporary music, so it is no surprise that a contemporary piece, Steven Mackey’s Through Your Fingers, was at the center of the program. Weilerstein and Barnatan premiered Mackey’s piece in Carnegie Hall just two days before bringing it to Fort Worth. The piece is tonal and melodic, with moments of nearly impressionistic wispiness contrasting with more robust themes.
In Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G Minor for Piano and Cello, Op. 19, Weilerstein’s and Barnatan’s Romantic flair, a bit much in the Mendelssohn, was put to its optimal use. Intense playing from both musicians worked perfectly in this repertoire. Weilerstein’s astonishing intonation in her instrument’s upper register was on prominent display here. These are musicians who complement each other beautifully. Weilerstein and Barnatan are both magnificent individual players, but here the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.