Encased in the trunk of its habitual Eeyore-like paradigm of unbearable misery, the cello is rarely subjected to full exploitation. Unlike its master accompanist, the grand piano, this bodily instrument usually gets to show off only one of its plentiful layers: that querulous cry of mourning that mimics a creak in the floorboards. In this recital at Wigmore Hall, nonetheless, American cellist Alisa Weilerstein unravelled endless layers. The infinite number of plies equalled the gamut historically stitched to assemble Rococo ball gowns.

Alisa Weilerstein © Harald Hoffmann | Decca
Alisa Weilerstein
© Harald Hoffmann | Decca

It began unexcitedly. Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no. 4 in C major, with its expected twists and turns, became a victim of its own traditionality. Oceans away from the unruly straits of his great symphonies, this piece was just sufficiently dramatic for the waves to undulate. The lack of current prompted Weilerstein to play with flair but also with reserve. Certain long phrases could have been extracted from the piece with greater variations in vibrato and slickness of improvisational sheen. The second movement built its own character with greater attention bestowed on the dizzying passages; here Weilerstein scripted the lines with frenetic relentlessness. From then on the cellist embellished many phrases with a diamond effect in vibrato: opening with a narrow approach, widening the sound and then closing it off with a tight corner. The euphonic shape would vary in its amplitude and contour but could be detected throughout many executions of slowly drawn-out auditory sentences.

Upon Weilerstein’s embarkation on Beethoven’s D major Sonata, her accompanist Inon Barnatan flowed in and out of drastic changes with ease: sumptuously alternating between savagery and smooth idylls. While there were still hollow valleys in Weilerstein’s execution that could have been replete with more idiosyncratic brushstrokes, her peaks demonstrated tranquil languor and a diffident moroseness. In moments of gently scraping the bow across the strings of her instrument, an incomparably subtle timidity could be heard.

Yet the vast body of the evening’s artistry was the mastery applied by both soloist and accompanist to more modern works. As soon as Weilerstein stepped into the characterisation of Samuel Barber’s Op.6 Sonata, her execution assumed a different mask altogether. Sporadic leaps across the stave were manic, dusty and choleric and Barnatan mirrored this eeriness in his spooked playing. Here the ear was presented not with a whole or wholesome instrument – but with a heterogeneous ensemble of stark alterations; notes and chords so disparate that, if the dots of their stems were joined-up on the score, there would be loops. Weilerstein’s tone was invincibly smooth as she surrendered herself to a work where the strings fight to stretch their own limits. In the second movement the pulsations of vibrato were configured to become emboldened throbs, the cello expended its own volume with the maximality with which a steam engine combusts its coal, and sanity itself was thrown into disfavour and suspended.

However, even this performance was inferior compared to the enlightenment that crowned the evening. In Britten’s Cello Sonata in C major, the very skeletal component of the cello was unveiled. Atonal passages were frenzied and blissfully out of control underneath Weilerstein’s dexterous fingers. Pizzicatos ran so fast, they were unseizable. Whether she was executing a bristly vibrato – crude as unrefined oil, lining her bow col legno over a string, or playing at fearsome proximity from the bridge, Weilerstein manipulated onomatopoeic sounds out of this instrument that listeners were shocked to learn it could disgorge. During this time Barnatan created transfixing and obsessive ruminations from arrays of trills, exploiting the pedals to induce a plethora of sounds from the piano’s own entrails.

Altogether this for the most part was no concert, but rather an evening of unearthing discoveries. The gamut of musicianship extended from Beethoven to Barber to Britten showcased the capabilities of this instrument in the hands of a musician who is not only its fervent advocate, but scrutinising analyst and prime investigator.