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Young Cellist With An Old Soul Plays Elgar, Elliott Carter

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein.
Gerardo Antonio Sanchez Torres
courtesy of the artist
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

American cellist Alisa Weilerstein has been attracting intense heat over the last few years. Not only did she win a 2011 MacArthur "genius" grant, but in 2009 she gave a blistering performance of Kodaly at the White House for President and Mrs. Obama (and a select number of fortunate guests that included both Tom Huizenga and me). Moreover, her record label, Decca, has made much of the fact that Weilerstein, 30, is the first cellist they've signed in three decades.

The biggest repertoire draw here was meant to be Edward Elgar's glorious Cello Concerto, with Daniel Barenboim conducting, paired with two other works: Elliott Carter's Cello Concerto and Max Bruch's Kol Nidrei. But what no one could have necessarily foreseen was Carter's death yesterday, just about a month short of his 104th birthday and a week after this recording was released. (As an acquaintance of mine remarked on Facebook yesterday, "Somehow, when a person passes the age of 100, his death begins to seem progressively less likely — not more.")

The big "get" here was supposed to have been the partnership between Weilerstein and Barenboim in the Elgar concerto. Barenboim is undoubtedly one of a few superstar conductors in the world today, but there's more meaning to the conductor's presence here than meets the eye. Even up to the current day, no cellist has been more closely associated with the Elgar concerto than Barenboim's late wife, Jacqueline Du Pre — she owned this piece in a way that no one else had before or since, and it is her classic 1965 recording against which every other comer has been measured in the nearly half-century since. So for Barenboim to record this piece with Weilerstein projects a very definite imprimatur.

Weilerstein imbues every phrase of the Elgar with plush, dark beauty. She takes her lyricism seriously and endows even the jocular bits, like the skittish quick descents at the beginning of the fourth movement, with a fierce and even slightly hard edge. Weilerstein's version is full of passion, but hers is of a different, old-soul sort than Du Pre's fresh-faced ardor.

Although the Elgar is the big, mainstream attraction of this recording — and as rich and expressive as her performance is — I'll be returning to this album at least as often for Carter's Cello Concerto. Written in 2000 (when the composer was a blushing lad of 92) and premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and Barenboim the following year, it's a wonderful complement to the Elgar in both its grand, lyrical gestures and its sudden, witty and explosive sparks of dialogue between soloist and orchestra. There's already been a very fine recording of this piece on Bridge Records with cellist Fred Sherry, but the juxtaposition of the Elgar and the Carter proves particularly illuminating.

There's one last piece that rounds out this recording: Bruch's Kol Nidrei, inspired by a prayer sung during Yom Kippur, the holiest observance in the Jewish year. Taken on its own terms, it's lovely, but as richly as Weilerstein, Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle render it, its structure and mood (with all those harp arpeggios) make it feel in this context somewhat like an outlier or sheer filler to get the recording over the one-hour mark. No matter: This is an album that is sure to garner Weilerstein even more acclaim, and one that will make a serious case for the Carter concerto to enter the repertory, even after the elegies for the dean of American composers begin to fade.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.