Alisa Weilerstein is a cellist with a refined sound and some deep insights into the life of a musical phrase. Pianist Inon Barnatan has a breathtaking charisma that comes from gorgeously turned out technique, a masterly sense of color, and an expressiveness that can question, weep, or shout joy from the rooftops. Monday night at the Perelman, you could hear these two slightly different personalities shifting in and out of a unified partnership.
In a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital that covered some stylistic ground, the pair’s greatest insights came in Mendelssohn.
The Cello Sonata in D Major has a storybook quality about it. Players had listeners pull up close and imagine what elation could be behind the first movement, and whether there was a big bad wolf in the inventive piano part of the second (so convincingly answered by Barnatan’s lurk and menace). Weilerstein was at her best in the third movement. Against the pianist’s slow, contemplative, Schumann-esque broken chords, she rolled out the intense recitative-like statement with molten inevitability.
The cellist has a solidity in the upper register that is rare. You’d never know the tight-rope feeling other cellists often generate in this range, and she has a carrying power in these high notes that she does not have all around. Elsewhere in the recital, Barnatan sometimes overpowered.
But not in Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, where he shifted palettes by evoking gauzy harp harmonics in one movement and a misty Debussy-like mood in another. They matched colors impressively in Chopin’s Cello Sonata, Opus 65, and in the encore — the “Andante” from Rachmaninoff’s G minor Sonata for cello and piano.
There was real Debussy, too – his 1915 Cello Sonata. Weilerstein did not always express strong opinions about what makes the piece so unusual. For that, you would have to have heard last week’s Astral Artists concert with cellist Thomas Mesa, who brought out its edge and contrasting timbres. Weilerstein made it seem like a different piece – not personal, perhaps, but lovely within a certain range.