It was an eerie night for music in Alisa Weilerstein’s Wigmore Hall recital; a concert that allowed the listener to hear what Brahms could be if a composer like Stravinsky edited his notes and altered his expressive markings. This was bestial Brahms; the kind that started off each phrase with a brusque and violent, even startling, attack. The execution, with its savage pace and sudden switches in dynamics and tempo, was the kind that may have just been censored in the more traditional, evenly-paced epoch of 19th-century Romanticism.

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

If Weilerstein’s idiosyncratic style is marked with anything, it’s absolute rejection of conventional performance or cellist stereotype. The first movement of Brahms’ Cello Sonata in E minor, marked Allegro non troppo, dispensed with those long, languorous notes that we tend to associate with it. Each new phrase was played with an attack so laden with vibrato and hot-tempered volume that the note was not so much an introduction as a lunge. Fast speed and dwindling sound in the successive notes meant many of the work’s plaintive and lulling themes were rushed through.

Weilerstein’s experimentation became even more radical in the second movement. Rapid quavers between belligerent attacks became lightly executed staccati, countering the accented notes preceding them. The movement thus began to lose its fluency and split into two polarised divisions: fierce, wolf-like attacks and thin strokes of narrow vibrato whose innocent mood resembled something that came not from Brahms but from The Nutcracker. Weilerstein’s abrupt shifts in both tone and in vibrato made for some tantalising intellectual listening – but also void of sentiment.

The Sonata in F major introduced to us another facet of Weilerstein's inimitable approach to the composer. Here the renowned pizzicato section of the Adagio affettuoso second movement, was neither Adagio in pace nor as tender as affettuoso would imply. Her pizzicati came out as throbbing prods, plucked with an untamed vigour.

Inon Barnatan was apt to counter these sometimes cantankerous chords with a greater ebb and flow applied to his own handling of his piano part. Although his performance lacked the incomparable creativity that his partner’s exuded, Barnatan opened up some of the rallentandi and diminuendi that Weilerstein’s playing eschewed. Much of the time her own volume eclipsed his sound and occasionally the pianist was forced to hurry to catch-up.

It was in Stravinsky that Weilerstein’s unbridled attacks found a home. Here, in music free of the luscious legatos in the Romantic scores, individual notes and chords could snap and crackle with the bold abruptness of a twig. And yet not all of them could be afforded such an independence. The Suite italienne stems from Stravinksy’s score to Pulcinella, a neo-classical ballet. In most renditions, the themes sound like deliberately elongated versions of motifs that were favoured by Haydn; effectively it is a Classical work.

Weilerstein elected to accentuate the work’s most 20th-century qualities. This was mainly exemplified during the second movement Serenata where Weilerstein repeated one brusque chord in the same fashion as though hypnotised and playing at command. There was manifest relish as her bow smacked the fingerboard to forge brutal spiccati. Her playing near the bridge suggested imminent destruction, and she instantly could switch from anxious, quick tremolos to no vibrato whatsoever.

Throughout Steven Mackey’s Through Your Fingers, Weilerstein demonstrated that as a creative artist she can make bleak, atonal sections memorable simply through choices of pace and volume. The work itself takes the music all over the stave in disharmonious and unpredictable leaps, never finding a congruent whole but offering impressionistic bleakness. Weilerstein was able to enhance its different moments so that they did not just tumble in a pile of atonality but resonated on their own. Her bow could produce menacing metallic screeches that took infinity to diminish – and then radically switch to full-bodied warm, lyrical tone, oozing legato.

It was an evening where the revolt against tradition came in patches. While there were certainly moments where Weilerstein opted to play easily flowing legato motifs in the Brahms sonatas, the elements that most stuck out were those that sounded like rebellions against the familiar. With harsh changes in vibrato and pace and accented, jerky assaults at the onset of phrases, she converted the Romantic Brahms into a 20th-century dissident. It wasn’t a performance that allowed the audience to melt in the emotionality of music – but it did serve to pique their curiosity.

***11