Alisa Weilerstein on finding a fresh approach to Beethoven’s cello sonatas

Andrew Farach-Colton
Monday, May 23, 2022

For her new Beethoven cello sonatas album, Alisa Weilerstein has absorbed other interpretations before throwing it all away to find her own path

Alisa Weilerstein (photo: Paul Stuart)
Alisa Weilerstein (photo: Paul Stuart)

Alisa Weilerstein recorded both Bach’s Six Solo Suites and Beethoven’s five sonatas – widely considered the Old and New Testaments of the cello repertory – in a little more than a year.

‘I had originally thought that I wouldn’t put the Bach on disc until I was at least 65. I wanted more life experience’, she tells me via Zoom from her home in San Diego.

Although her face is backlit by blinds that seem to struggle to filter the brilliant Southern California sunshine, she appears absolutely radiant nonetheless.

‘But then I shifted my paradigm a bit because I feel sure I’ll record them again.’

I chime in that Yo-Yo Ma has recently recorded the Suites for the third time.

‘Yes, and they’re all wildly different from one another, and they’re all great. I actually called him before the sessions to ask if he thought I should go through with this, and he was encouraging, essentially telling me that I’m simply documenting a moment in time – a snapshot – even if the paradox is that it’s a permanent document.’

Alisa Weilerstein (photo: Marco Borggreve)

In truth, Weilerstein says, the decision to make the recording was a long time coming.

‘I’ve lived with the Bach Suites for as long as my memory can reach. I’ve studied them, played them, put them away, come back to them, got frustrated and thrown the scores against the wall, and come back to them again. Then, a couple of years before the recording sessions, I started doing these marathon concerts where I’d play all six suites in one go. It was a form of training, in a way – mentally, physically and, most importantly, spiritually – to embark on that journey. I was 37 in the summer of 2019, in the “late before” times before Covid,’ she laughs, ‘and I tried to arrange as many of those concerts as I could so I’d be really immersed in the music in every way. Bach never leaves you, of course, but I wanted to be sure.’

Those marathon concerts gave her confidence another necessary boost.

When Weilerstein says she’s lived with the Suites for as long as her memory can reach, it’s no exaggeration.

Both her parents are professional musicians – her mother is a pianist and her father is the violinist who founded the Cleveland Quartet – and so she grew up in an intensely musical environment.

‘I started playing cello when I was four and almost immediately we started playing piano trios together. The cello parts of early Haydn trios are so basic that I could play them even as an absolute beginner. This evolved, of course. It started as a just-for-fun thing but as I was kind of obsessed with the cello from that very early age, we wound up playing together a lot. Eventually, as I developed – my parents being the passionate chamber music players and educators that they are – they’d bring their students to the house and we would read string quartets, quintets, sextets and other combinations. I learned what a truly sympathetic collaboration means, and that knowledge has informed not only my choice of chamber music partners today, but I think it’s informed my collaborations with conductors and most everything that I do musically.

‘Speaking of collaboration,’ she says, ‘you probably don’t know that I fell in love with opera when I was seven or eight. I even toyed with the idea of becoming a singer, but then put that idea away. When I was 14 and a student at the Aspen Music Festival, I spent a summer playing in the opera orchestra. It was absolutely fascinating to see how conductors were navigating their collaborations with singers, and the ways an orchestra can support the singers.’

Another formative influence was her parents’ extensive record collection.

‘In terms of the cellists I listened to, I’d say the ones I’d always return to were Jacqueline du Pré, Piatigorsky, Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma. They were my heroes growing up. Oh, and Pablo Casals. How could I forget?! He was probably the first cellist I ever listened to. Of course, Rostropovich was alive when I was old enough to be conscious of such things, and I heard him and Yo-Yo Ma in concert whenever it was possible. I also listened to records by Richter, Serkin, Schnabel, the great string quartets of yore, as well as those by my parents’ chamber music colleagues. And growing up in Cleveland from the age of seven, I’d go to Cleveland Orchestra concerts all the time so I also saw some of the greatest conductors. I was extremely lucky in that sense to have this kind of constant exposure.’

What she neglects to mention is that she made her debut with the Cleveland Orchestra at 13 as the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations.

Alisa Weilerstein (photo: Marco Borggreve)

Sadly, Weilserstein says, she no longer has much time to listen to recordings.

In 2013 she married Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare and they had a daughter three years later, so she now has to balance her hectic performance schedule with her family life.

This has now been made slightly more complicated by her husband’s burgeoning success; he’s due to take the reins at the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal next season while concurrently serving as Music Director of the San Diego Symphony, so the family will shuttle back and forth between their two home bases.

‘These days when I listen to records, I gravitate towards symphonic music; it’s just what I feel like listening to. Actually, I’m eight months’ pregnant at the moment’ – ah, so this helps explain her radiance – ‘and my daughter is five-and-a-half, so I mostly listen to things that I want her to listen to. We start every day with Glenn Gould’s first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (although obviously that’s not symphonic), and we listen to lots of other things too, of course. Lately we’ve been doing some interpretive dance to the second movement of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. It’s super fun.’

‘The Bach Suites reach straight to the head and the heart in a way that’s very different from the Beethoven sonatas’

Returning to Bach’s Cello Suites, I tell Weilerstein that the Suites seem to be intensely private music to me, something cellists might ideally play for themselves in solitude.

‘It’s funny, I think one of the reasons I enjoy playing them in public is that for me it’s a kind of shared spiritual experience – something for the self, of course, but also something much greater, too, so how could it not envelop every audience member? This gives the music great immediacy and humanity. One mistake which performers can sometimes make, I think, is to put the Bach Suites on a pedestal so they seem inaccessible. I take the opposite view: that they reach straight to the head and the heart in a way that’s very different from, say, Beethoven’s cello sonatas, yet that’s somehow more direct than almost any other written music I can think of. That’s my humble opinion, at least,’ she smiles wryly.

‘I have two really great memories of playing the Bach Suites in concert, one at the Grand Hall of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg right before the recording sessions, then two months later at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester after the sessions. These were 2000-seat halls but I felt like I was playing on a mountain under the stars, and having the audience there created that spiritual energy for me. To play all the Suites in that way – I just feel incredibly lucky. I’m not an especially religious person, but these were spiritual, elevated experiences for me, and I’ll never forget them.’

Inon Barnatan and Alisa Weilerstein (photo: Paul Stuart)

In the spring of 2020, she used the internet and social media to share her solitary experience of playing the Suites in her home.

‘When the pandemic started and we thought we were in for a four-week lockdown, I started recording one movement of the Bach a day from my bedroom to release on the internet. These were completely unpolished, live takes made with the iPad microphone. It was amazing to me that I’d spent the summer of 2019 searching for the perfect conditions to record them – the perfect setting, studio and producer, which I found. I really had the most amazing team when I made the recording for Pentatone in July and August of that year. But in March and April of 2020, all I wanted to do was to give. I didn’t care. The rest didn’t matter. It wasn’t that I didn’t think about what I was doing or wasn’t careful, but the priorities were different. It was stripped down to its very essence.’

That essence was communication and connection, words Weilerstein uses in almost every interview with her that I’ve read.

I ask how difficult it is to connect and communicate from a recording studio.

‘You have to use your imagination, of course. And that goes for any studio recording, not just for Bach. I’m lucky because I feel a really strong kinship with Friedemann Engelbrecht who’s produced most of my recordings. He made that really easy in a way. Even though I can’t see him when I’m playing, I can imagine I’m not just playing for a microphone but for a person who knows me very well, warts and all.’

That said, she admits, nothing is more difficult or exhausting for her than recording.

‘Even if you decide to be finished with the takes and move on, you’re never completely happy. You always wonder whether you should have done something differently or wrestle with it, but then you have to go on to the next thing. It’s scary. It takes me forever to open the first edit because I’m always so frightened to hear it,’ she laughs.

‘In the Rondo of the First Sonata, there’s a flash of that consuming vulnerability, a window into what was to come’

Indeed, she hadn’t yet opened the first edit of her and pianist Inon Barnatan’s new recording of Beethoven’s cello sonatas – but I had.

And she blushes gratefully when I tell her that not only did I feel the frisson of a live concert as I listened through the set, but it also made me very aware of Steven Isserlis’s observation that to play or hear the sonatas in sequence is to take ‘a journey through a life’.

‘It is a journey – and literally, in a way. You have the first two sonatas of Op 5 which are from Beethoven’s early period, then Op 69 from the middle, and finally the pair of Op 102 which are the gateway to the late period. To take that journey with all the changes in his language is so wonderful to do in real time.’

And it’s not just the changes in his language, I suggest, but the changes in the relationship between cello and piano, as well as between the performers and the audience.

‘Absolutely. The First Sonata in particular is almost a piano sonata with cello obbligato. That was the standard at that time. In Op 69, he starts with a cello solo, as if the cello were saying, “Here I am as an equal partner. I can do everything a violin can”. It’s really the first equal collaboration between cello and piano ever. But even in the Second Sonata of Op 5 you can feel the shift, not only in the partnership but in the emotional world. There’s a greater range, and much as I love the First Sonata, the Second is the more interesting. It’s fascinating to witness that evolution even in the short time period that these two sonatas were composed.’

We open our Bärenreiter scores and start flipping through pages, discussing details along the way.

I admit that her and Barnatan’s tempo for the first movement Allegro of Op 5 No 1 seemed very relaxed to me at first but the sense of forward motion still seemed inexorable, and I remembered something she said to a student during a masterclass she gave at the Rudolfinum in Prague (via YouTube): that it’s not the melody that leads, it’s the rhythm.

I’d never heard it put quite that way in my music studies but it made perfect sense.

Was this something she was taught? ‘I definitely heard things like that, although I don’t know if others put it exactly that way. That’s just how I distilled it. But I think it’s common to all of the musicians that I really admire. If you think of someone who plays with gravitas, it’s obvious that the rhythm is always in charge. I certainly learned this from my parents, and when I worked with Barenboim, I felt it so strongly with him that it really forced me to think this way, and that was absolutely invaluable.’

Turning to the Rondo of that First Sonata, I tell her that she makes the long ritardando near the end sound almost operatic, so much so that I wondered if Beethoven might be echoing the final scene of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro where the Count finally begs for forgiveness.

‘When Beethoven becomes vulnerable it’s almost unbearable. Maybe it’s because I’m pregnant and a bit more emotionally gooey than usual, but I was listening to the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth the other day and the … ’ – here she pauses, searching for the right word – ‘the nakedness of it was killing me. Here, in the passage you mention, there’s a flash of that consuming vulnerability, a window into what was to come. In the Adagio of the Fifth Sonata, too, there are private moments that I find unbearably moving.’

Curiously, that Adagio of Op 102 No 2 is the only proper slow movement in all five sonatas.

Even the lyrical Third Sonata has only a teasing sliver of one.

Weilerstein says it was worth the wait, in any case.

‘And we certainly can’t complain about the melodic writing in that Third Sonata with those gorgeous, soaring melodies. There’s a kind of generosity to Op 69 that I think is unique.’

I ask about the quirks in both sonatas of Op 102, where Beethoven seems to be trying to defy expectations in nearly every measure.

‘Op 102 No 1 is the most difficult musically. I think he originally titled it a “Free Sonata” because it was more a sonata-fantasia. It’s certainly the most elusive in terms of the world it wants to inhabit. You have to get into that fantasia mindset, in a way, and broaden the emotional palette. Or take the fugal finale of Op 102 No 2 which is so wild harmonically. It could have been written in the 20th century.’

When I say that her and Barnatan’s minuet-like tempo for this fugue felt spot on, she nods.

‘Thank you for mentioning the tempo. We experimented with it quite a lot. And talk about the rhythm leading the melody! We found there are so many details that if you play it too fast it somehow sounds slower and less engaging. You need the tension between the notes, of course, but also the space for it all to be understandable. When you listen to this fugue you want to be’ – and she sits forward in her chair, wide-eyed – ‘waiting for what’s coming next.’

The complete Beethoven cello sonatas is Weilerstein’s most recent recording for Pentatone, but I want to turn the conversation to her first release for that label, an unexpected coupling of the two Haydn concertos with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (10/18).

Although she has a knack for unusual juxtapositions – bringing together, say, Bruch, Elgar and Elliott Carter (Decca, 2/13) – the sheer zest of her Haydn caught me entirely by surprise.

Listening to her Bach and Beethoven, it would seem she has little if any interest in historically informed performance practice, and indeed, it’s the open-hearted fearlessness of her interpretations that has generated comparisons with du Pré.

‘I’ve always been someone who’s tried to resist any sort of categorisation in my life – not just in my cello playing but in every way. With the Bach Suites, for example, I did plenty of research on the historically informed performance movement. I learned a lot from it, and I have endless admiration for my colleagues who do unbelievable things with that approach. While I grew up with Casals’s recordings, I also heard Anner Bylsma, and then the generation following and now my generation. I tried to absorb it all and then throw it all away so that when I came back to the scores I could have the space to find my own path.’

But the Haydn, I protest. It’s worlds away from the staid elegance one usually hears.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard these concertos played with such effervescence.

‘If we’re talking about the finale of the C major Concerto then effervescence is exactly the right word. I think of a champagne cork popping and bubbles floating everywhere. It’s one of my favourite movements from that era for any instrument, it’s just so inspired and crackling. I learned these works with far more vibrato than I use now when I play them. I guess my interpretation evolved as I became more involved with the historically informed performance movement. And then I went through a similar process as I did with the Bach Suites and the Beethoven sonatas, throwing those ideas away and then coming back to the scores without listening to any recordings for a while in order to find my own way. Something I definitely wanted to stay away from was a pale sound. I think that in the pursuit of finding the right language we can lose other things which were valuable from our previous training. So to combine the energy, humour and immediacy of Haydn while putting all the expression with the left hand and the bow as I’ve been trained to do – that’s really what I was looking for.’

When it comes to the music of our time, Weilerstein is equally passionate and has said that she wants to create a 21st-century repertoire for the cello in the way that Rostropovich did in the 20th century.

‘How many works did he premiere? It’s in the hundreds. I feel extremely grateful to have formed relationships and friendships with many wonderful composers. Matthias Pintscher and Pascal Dusapin have written me concertos, and I’ve worked with Lera Auerbach and Osvaldo Golijov among others. I know many of my colleagues share my feeling that it’s our duty to create a repertoire that’s going to last. That means not just playing new works once and putting them away, but really playing and committing oneself to them. That said, over time you discover the composers you really relate to while there’s other music whose language may not speak to you as easily or as strongly, and that’s fine, too.

‘These days, there are so many acceptable styles for composers. You can write in almost any way you like and still be taken seriously, whereas in the recent past that wasn’t always the case. I’d imagine that there’s so much freedom now that it’s probably a challenge for some to choose a path, but there’s no question that we’re living in an incredibly exciting time for new music.’

This interview originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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