By Laurence Vittes
Alisa Weilerstein‘s first album for Pentatone—brilliant performances of Haydn’s two cello concertos with an appropriately starry-eyed recording of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht—marks the first recorded fruit of her new multi-season role as artistic partner of Norway’s celebrated Trondheim Soloists. The Haydn concertos alone make this essential listening: Both in command of thrills and a genuine understanding of what Haydn in the 21st century can be if it is spontaneous and free, her performances of the two concertos are without equal in the catalogue.
For Weilerstein and her 1723 Montagnana, her debut is the first in a series reflecting on the cruel cultural paradoxes of Vienna from where her grandparents fled in 1938. Her second album will be devoted to Jewish composers.
I caught up with Weilerstein just before she launched into a busy summer festival and 2018–19 season. She will play the Elgar Concerto at Vail with the New York Philharmonic conducted by her brother Joshua, embark on a seven-city US tour playing the Dvorak Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Semyon Bychkov, and play Bach Solo Suite cycles in Aspen, Berkeley, and Beverly Hills. In the midst of all this activity Weilerstein will help the Ulster Orchestra of Belfast, conducted by Rafael Payare, open his last season as music director with two trailblazing performances of the title role in Strauss’ Don Quixote.
Trondheim seems like a great new location for you.
It was very special when the soloists asked me to have this longterm artistic partnership with them. I had actually gone to Trondheim just to read through music with them, but the chemistry was so immediately special. The Haydn Schoenberg album allowed me to confront my own conflicted relationship with Vienna’s profound historical legacy in the shadow of its dark past.
What were the challenges in recording the Schoenberg?
The key points in Verklärte Nacht was how it veers from emotional extreme to extreme using such such a wide variety of colors. We were looking for as colorful a palette as possible. It’s not always easy when you’ve been recording for hours at a time. One thing I found about the Trondheim Soloists: Everyone was so willing and energized that it was a joy from start to finish. They’re pretty young to begin with, of course. And they always have a couple of students in their early 20s on every tour.
You wrote that your recording sessions took place in late April, with “patches of frozen snow surrounding an 11th-century church,” where you spent 21 hours rehearsing and recording.
It’s true. We made them in a church in Selbu, a small village outside Trondheim, at the end of April—in Berlin it was already summer—but in Selbu there was still snow on the ground amid sweeping white landscapes and the rugged fjords of northern Norway. It sounded great while we were making the recordings—it has a very warm acoustic. No wonder that their recordings have won several Grammys.
You’re doing all six Bach Suites in Aspen at the Music Festival, Beverly Hills at the Wallis Annenberg, and Berkeley at Cal Performances. What has made playing the complete cycle so compelling to cellists like you and Yo-Yo Ma?
To play them all is to play a concert about life. They are a series of meditations that are physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting, but exhilarating at the same time. They proceed in difficulty and complexity from the First through the Sixth which Rostropovich called a symphony for cello.