★★★★½ Weilerstein’s Dvořák demands to be seen as well as heard.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
November 16, 2016

Having missed her Australian appearances a couple of years ago I was keen to hear Alisa Weilerstein live, having been increasingly impressed by the American cellist’s growing Decca discography, and especially by a fine 2015 recording of the Dvořák concerto. The Czech composer’s masterpiece was placed second in this programme, but it was well worth the waiting for in the hands of this extraordinarily communicative artist.

Brett Dean’s eclectic programme threw the spotlight initially onto the orchestra with a blockbuster reading of Witold Lutosławski’s gritty Third Symphony. Weilerstein led us into the work, perched high up at the back of the stage, playing the Polish composer’s taxing Sacher Variation – a solo investigation of a theme by Benjamin Britten written to celebrate the Swiss entrepreneur’s 70th birthday in 1976. Ranging from impassioned anger to melancholy, Weilerstein ran a whole gamut of emotions in four minutes, before Dean neatly segued into the symphony proper and the soloist slipped discreetly offstage.

Brett Dean

Lutosławski was one of those composers whose style changed enormously from the imposed Soviet realism of his early works to the visionary, questing music of his later years. Embracing 12-tone serialism, yet never bound by its more academic constraints, his Symphony No 3 epitomises the human face of atonality that he sought to project via a series of masterpieces in the 1970s and ‘80s. Written for Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it combines the philosophical with the political, for despite Lutosławski’s protestations that his music carried no overt narrative, it’s hard not to sense a programme in this richly dramatic and structurally episodic work.

Beginning with a hammered out four note theme – a sort of anti-Romantic take on Beethoven’s Fifth – there’s a strong whiff of the authoritarian state at work, or even the dreaded knock on the door in the middle of the night that chilled the hearts of so many free-thinkers behind the Iron Curtain. The buzz of strings evokes the whispers of friends and neighbours, weeping figures and pizzicati suggest laments and tiptoeing, and folkish wind flourishes convey a regular sense of cat and mouse.

Dean was an authoritarian figure on the podium, precise of gesture, setting the boundaries within which Lutosławski’s aleatoric counterpoint – a series of orchestral ad lib sections – could flourish. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra was on razor-sharp form throughout, their playing highly disciplined, yet bursting with colour and really embracing the composer’s gorgeous orchestrations. Squealing strings, clattering percussion and solemn brass all added to the picture as the work headed for its cinematic climax and Dean’s sure hand guided them through passage after passage of great originality. The final slow build from calm reassurance on horns and orchestral piano was beautifully finessed before the work went out in a blaze of pseudo-Balinese glory. I had to smile too at the 15-year-old lad coming out for the interval who turned to his fellows and said “That was Boulez all over again”. There’s hope for the art form yet!

Alisa Weilerstein. Photo by Harald Hoffmann

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is rightly a cornerstone of the repertoire. Great interpreters abound to which, following this performance, I’d most definitely add Alisa Weilerstein. A musician of modest stature, she wraps herself around her instrument in a close embrace, her passionate energy and long, relaxed bowing drawing you instantly into her own world and that of Dvořák’s Bohemian blend of nature, heroics and romance.

Dean opted for just the right size of orchestra here, ensuring that his soloist could be clearly heard. After a slightly clipped introduction, in which the orchestral balance felt a little off, he settled in to accompany Weilerstein most sensitively, while repeatedly drawing out of the score little magical details previously unheard. Weilerstein seized every opportunity in the dynamic opening Allegro, and her restatement of the main theme was deeply felt and highly moving. In the Adagio slow movement, her beauty of phrasing and sense of anguish was paramount, Dean and the orchestra – woodwind especially lovely here ­– adding to the sense of drama and of sorrow. The beautifully finessed pause before the tread of the third movement’s march broke it was heart-stopping.

Late Dvořák is always so creative, and the final movement of the Cello Concerto is no exception. Weilerstein managed to convey an extraordinary range of moods here, her blend of engaged passion and radiant lyricism perfect for the piece. The duet with concertmaster Andrew Haveron just before the end was wonderfully intense, and that Wagnerian – even Straussian – playout culminating in Weilerstein’s heart-rending trill made for a poignant conclusion. There are two more concerts, today and tomorrow. I can’t recommended them highly enough.