BBC Proms 2014: Dvorák Cello Concerto

Helen Wallace listens to Alisa Weilerstein's take on the famous Cello Concerto

BBC Proms 2014: Dvorák Cello Concerto

Janácek’s overture to The House of the Dead proved not only a potent shot of distilled Moravia, but a brilliant means of introducing the Czech Philharmonic, as it scythes between tutti and concertante groups. Via fiendish violin solos we encountered a formidable concertmaster in Josef Spacek Jr, while tutti strings produced a satisfyingly pungent ring and intricate wind solos whetted the appetite for Dvorák’s Cello Concerto.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein had drawn a full house, her much-lauded Decca recording of the work with these forces on sale with the programmes. What followed was a reminder that making a recording and performing in the Royal Albert Hall present two very different challenges. After a blazing orchestral opening (lumpen horn melody notwithstanding), Weilerstein made a hectic entrance that felt more Manhattan than Bohemia, launching herself with such speed into Dvorák’s rhetorical flourishes details were swallowed up by the hall. 

While filigree figures zip by impressively on her recording, here they were reduced to a blur. When she gave herself space to sing, as in the ardent second theme, or the rapt slow movement, she produced a glorious, tawny tone and a natural sense of line that agreed beautifully with the Czech winds. This was particularly illuminating when the Allegro’s second melody returns in the minor: her hushed, veiled timbre made for an affecting duet with flute. Yet when the tempo moved up a gear, passages were snatched with surprising aggression and forced forward in a style that found no answer in the consistently idiomatic orchestral accompaniment.

The performance was redeemed for me in a visionary final coda, where she soared dreamily over the orchestra, allowing at last a natural ebb and flow to develop between her and her Czech colleagues. Time stopped for her penultimate, floated note before a momentous resolution. There’s an edge to Weilerstein’s playing, a sense she’s still fighting to prove herself; the battle’s won, as her exquisitely understated encore of Bach’s C major Sarabande underlined.

One is now so used to hearing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 played by spare, alert period ensembles it takes some adjustment to embrace a performance by a full-size symphony orchestra, in a cavernous acoustic to boot. While the line of bassists high along the back gave a great depth of resonance, the result was almost a time-lag with lumbering antiphonal exchanges in the Vivace, and generalised ‘forest murmurs’ from lower strings sounding through the Allegretto.

Belohlavek’s Scherzo had a warm ebullience, though a congested-sounding horn made for a sluggish trio. Fiery verve lit the finale, and won over a crowd hungry for encores. Jirí Belohlávek came prepared for a party: Dvorák’s charmingly clumsy Slavonic Dance No. 3, Smetana’s sizzling Skocná from The Bartered Bride and some true Czech schmaltz in Nedbal’s Valse Triste.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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