Weilerstein wows in Barber’s Cello Concerto

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★

Wake-up call” is a much abused term. The England football team gets one every time it loses a friendly match 1-0 but still carries on dozing. Dvořák’s overture ‘Carnival’ is the genuine article, an electrifying musical wake-up call jump-starting the concert with an invigorating blast from Bohemia. The conductor Kevin John Edusei’s downbeat unleashed the CBSO for ten minutes of festive joy with Dvořák utilizing the orchestra from top to bottom with brass and horns providing a firm foundation while the tambourine rattled at the top – I can’t remember it being used to such good effect, and played so vigorously, in any other work. The gentle reflective inner section, with subtle but telling contributions from the wind section and leader Jonathan Martindale, hinted at the riches of Dvořák’s late masterpieces inspired by the folk tales of his fellow Bohemian Karel Jaromír Erben like ‘The Golden Spinning Wheel’. Why don’t we hear more of them? On this form the CBSO would do them full justice.

Edusei prefaced the performance of Barber’s Cello Concerto by hailing the soloist Alisa Weilerstein as “an absolute champion” of the work. It’s overshadowed by Barber’s earlier Violin Concerto with its super-saturated romantic melodies, but Weilerstein’s phenomenal performance showed what a dramatic, intense and musically rich work the Cello Concerto is. Her absolute technical command and amazing powers of projection came as no surprise, having reviewed three of her earlier outstanding performances at Symphony Hall, of concertos by Elgar and Dvořák and Prokofiev's Sinfonia concertante. The first movement is a shape-shifter, no sooner is the main theme established than we’re haring off on a new track,and then a solo interlude with Weilerstein despatching a witty and tricky extended cadenza. The central Andante is Barber at his twilight romantic best, with some gorgeous wind playing the high point of which was an ardent duet between cello and oboe (guest principal Steven Hudson). The third movement has eerie shadows scudding across the musical landscape – and another musing solo passage – before Weilerstein and the orchestra’s combined final flourish.

In the eighteenth century Augustan poets used to write works with titles like ‘The Battle between Melancholy and Exultation’, which would be an apt summation of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.3. It began with Oliver Janes’ plaintive solo clarinet, a lonely voice in the wilderness; Rachmaninoff the homesick Russian exiled in California perhaps. Then in comes the orchestra with one of the composer’s trademark big-hearted melodies, the sun is out and all is well. It’s the tension between the two moods, variations on them throughout in different orchestral guises and groupings, that drive the work on. Edusei clearly loves it and elicited some terrific playing from the CBSO with Rachmaninoff ensuring that every section had their chance to shine. In 1936 critics dismissed it as “sterile” and “empty” – but what do critics know?

Norman Stinchcombe

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