HAYDN Cello Concertos SCHOENBERG Verklärte Nacht (Weilerstein)
Only a cellist who paired Elgar and Elliot Carter on her concerto debut album could have devised this left-field programme that confronts unsullied Enlightenment optimism with the fin de siècle Vienna of Freud and Klimt. Yet, in performances of such freshness, verve and chamber transparency, the concept works. It reminds us, too, that Schoenberg always protested that he was not subverting but merely perpetuating the great Austro-German tradition from Bach and Haydn onwards.
You’d go far to find performances of the Haydn concertos that match Alisa Weilerstein’s mix of stylistic sensitivity, verve and spontaneous delight in discovery. Weilerstein is a risk-taker by nature; and the helter-skelter finale of the C major takes impetuosity to the edge. But such is her technical prowess, and the mingled eagerness and skill of the young Trondheim Soloists, that she carries it off, brilliantly. She brings a puckish glee to the lightning passagework in thumb position, yet never short-changes Haydn’s brief moments of lyrical eloquence.
Both first movements, too, are unusually mobile, and all the better for it. Here is music-making with a spring in its step and a twinkle in the eye that, you sense, would have delighted Haydn. The opening Allegro moderato of the D major too easily outstays its welcome. In Weilerstein’s hands it sparkles rather than, as so often, chugs, with an inventive variety of colour and attack and an airy grace in the potentially tedious reams of demisemiquavers. Crucially, too, the orchestral support is always lithe and supple, with a real vitality in the repeated-note bass lines. Both slow movements marry beauty and purity of line (vibrato restrained and subtly varied) with a confiding inwardness, not least in Weilerstein’s rapt pianissimo in the closing stages of the D major’s Adagio. This is my kind of Haydn.
It’s also my kind of Schoenberg. Performing his 1899 tone poem with a hyper-responsive group of some 20 players, with Weilerstein now leading the cellos, allows you to combine the advantages of both the original sextet version and Schoenberg’s later transcription for string orchestra. There is neurasthenic fervour aplenty in this performance, with all the desperate intensity you could wish for in a work that never holds back on climaxes. But what lingers in the memory is the subtlety and delicacy of so much of the playing (say, in the exquisitely floated violin-cello duet at the moment of the lovers’ reconciliation), the clarity of the dense contrapuntal textures and the natural handling of Schoenberg’s tricky-to-gauge transitions. From the near inaudibility of the lugubrious opening, teetering on the edge of audibility, the dynamic range, too, is astonishing. If you like your Verklärte Nacht lofty and monumental, Karajan and the peerless Berlin Philharmonic strings (DG, 3/75) still lead the field. But for a performance that combines chamber-musical intimacy, transparency of detail and urgent human expressiveness, you won’t do better than this.