You first performed the Elgar concerto under Daniel Barenboim two years ago with the Berlin Philharmonic and joined the Staatskapelle Berlin this spring to make a live recording. What have you learned from Barenboim about the piece?
He has such a deep knowledge of string playing that he was able to go into very detailed things like fingerings. He was even more extreme about structural and musical detail when we did the recording. For him it always has to very expressive, which is my aesthetic as well. The Elgar concerto is ultra-Romantic music multiplied by a certain power. We talked about sustaining the top notes in the opening chords so that you barely hear a break. The piece should never have a sharp corner or a sudden twist. Everything is completely connected, and it’s very organic as a result.
When I play with him, even if he doesn’t say it, it’s the way he conducts the piece that is so inspiring. Even when he was tough and insistent about certain things, I never felt that I had to be in a straitjacket or not play the way I felt was natural. Only the best teachers and conductors can make so many suggestions and yet give you complete freedom. It’s usually one or the other.
Were Barenboim's performances with the late Jacqueline du Pré ever looming in the background?
No, the focus was entirely on the Elgar. When I first learned the piece when I was around 12, I had to force myself to put Du Pré’s recordings away because her interpretations are so convincing and seductive. It would have been quite easy to copy her example even if subconsciously. I had listened to every recording of hers before I was 10 years old. I must have listened to her performing Elgar with Barenboim and Barbirolli thousands of times. So I was aware of this issue and haven’t listened to her recordings in quite a while just because I need to get out my own voice. No one plays the Elgar the way she did, no one has the directness about it, the honesty, the passion. You don’t think of it as a cello when she plays, there’s a oneness between her and the instrument. You forget everything.
You’ve of course played a great deal of contemporary music, from Ligeti to Golijov, but what difficulties does the concerto present to the performer?
I’m not comfortable with the word ‘difficult’ because everything takes work. Some technical gymnastics take time, but with the right kind of practice they should not be difficult. For me the piece is a eulogy to the past, and in that sense it’s very tragic. You sense someone who has lived through a lot and is finding it very hard to say goodbye to something which will never return: the Edwardian era really ended after First World War. If you were to compare it to the Dvořák concerto, another late-Romantic work which also has a sense of nostalgia, with its longing for the homeland, I would say the major difference is that Elgar very much emphasizes the private and the intimate. Although the music is very expressive, it’s also very restrained, kept close to the chest in a sense. That dichotomy is very interesting to explore.
You rehearsed and recorded the concerto over a period of three full days. Can you describe the collaboration with the Staatskapelle?
I felt so lucky to be playing with them. Their quality of sound, flexibility, and connection emotionally, musically and structurally has everything you could want. This orchestra has worked with Barenboim for 20 years, and of course rehearsing in this very rigorous and detailed way, you really get to know the players and the psychology behind everything. Barenboim was equally demanding of them as he was of me, really focusing on bringing out the different voices. We went deeper each day so that by the time we got to the final concert, we could be totally immersed and not have to think about annoying technical issues. That was the most gratifying part. It gave us freedom to really let go.
Alisa Weilerstein's new album is reviewed in the February 2013 issue of Gramophone – out now. And you can hear a complete track from her recording of Carter's Cello Concerto on the Gramophone Player.