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Alisa Weilerstein Plays Elgar: Exploring Music With An Intense Past

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein
Jamie Jung
Courtesy of the artist
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein

British composer Edward Elgar wrote his cello concerto in 1919 — soon after the end of World War I — and it's suffused with the dark weight of that war.

All Things Considered host Melissa Block sat down with 30-year-old American cellist Alisa Weilerstein to listen to Weilerstein's new recording of the piece, which she made with the Berlin Staatskapelle and conductor Daniel Barenboim.

That in itself is noteworthy, because recordings by Barenboim's late wife, cellist Jacqueline du Pre, became virtually synonymous with the Elgar concerto.

For nearly four decades after du Pre's untimely death, Barenboim didn't perform the work with another female cellist. Now he has — with Weilerstein.

Weilerstein walks Block through the concerto in this discussion. "When I would describe Elgar's music," Weilerstein says, "it's of course very deeply emotional, but it's also very English in that there's a kind of noble resolve, and even reserve.

"However, what's unique to Elgar's music, and what I'm really drawn to, is its deeply, deeply personal quality," the cellist says. "And in this concerto, I think that's actually one of the biggest elements, the personal reflection and tragedy and nostalgia, really longing for an era that would never return. I mean, it was the end of the First World War. It was the absolute end of the Edwardian era, and I think Elgar was quite afraid of what was coming."

Weilerstein tells a story about one of Elgar's most famous themes, a portion of the concerto's first movement. "This is really an amazing story about Elgar," she says eagerly. "When he was on his deathbed, he was speaking to a friend, and he said, 'You know, if you hear that theme from my concerto in the hills when you're walking, don't worry. It's only me.' I mean, with this kind of theme, you can imagine the rolling hills of the English countryside, and somebody walking and whistling this tune — which doesn't end. It's a thread. And then it comes to this incredibly devastating conclusion. It always gives me chills."

The piece shifts very dramatically in the second movement to a kind of perpetual motion. How does Weilerstein recalibrate herself, moving from the sweep of the first movement to this very frenetic pace? "Well, we're very complex beings," she says. "We can come from this really somber, devastating feeling, and then turn around and then be in a complete fantasy world. That's really how I have to think when I'm playing the concerto. It's a 180-degree shift. I kind of think of it like an alternate reality, let's say. It's full of whimsy and fantasy and dancing."

Weilerstein started playing the cello when she was quite tiny — at age 4 — and the Elgar was a piece she'd listen to over and over again. "Jacqueline du Pre was — is, still! — my cello hero," she says. "When I was a very little girl, when I could barely play, I was still very much in love with the cello, and I, in fact, I tried to teach myself all these pieces that were much too advanced for me, including the Dvorak concerto, the Elgar, the Saint-Saens. These were my favorite pieces at the time. I think I listened to every bit of footage of Jacqueline du Pre before I was 10."

Weilerstein began to learn the Elgar concerto in earnest when she was 12 — and she realized that she would have to put the du Pre recordings away. "As much as I adore those recordings," Weilerstein says, "I knew how huge her personality was. I wanted to find my own way with the piece. So I had to put them on the shelf, and I actually haven't heard those recordings in quite a while. I needed to develop my own relationship with the score."

The third movement, a slow adagio, "might be my favorite movement of the concerto," Weilerstein says. "This is where you really look inside. For me, this movement is certainly about nostalgia, but it's also about love. I don't hear this kind of almost nakedness in much other music I can think of at all."

Her favorite moment in the concerto's fourth and final movement comes near the end. "Elgar writes a kind of timing marking on almost every bar," Weilerstein explains. "The ritards [purposely slowing down] kind of go over the bar lines, and the a tempos — when you take the tempo back, in other words — they come back sometimes in the middle of the bars. So you never have a sharp corner. It's always rising and falling. You can imagine someone breathing, or having difficulty breathing."

Soon, the theme heard in the third movement returns. "But here," Weilerstein says, "there's such a past now — the music has a past. You're hearing it again after this massive last movement." And just before the concerto ends, there's a return to the theme from the first movement, "and of course that also has a past." Weilerstein says she approaches it very differently as the piece concludes than she did earlier in the piece.

"This is something that Barenboim talks about a lot," she says. "When something returns, it has a past — so much has happened between when you first heard the theme and when you hear it again."

Weilerstein says that when she emerges from playing the piece, there is a definite release. "When you're so immersed in the music, it's kind of like trying to remember a dream. At the end of the piece, I kind of feel like, 'Well, he's through with the world.' So that's actually how I was feeling in the moment, even if that's not my normal way of thinking. I was very much in character, let's say."

And it's not a place Weilerstein really wants to stay. "It's actually one reason I'm kind of reluctant to play encores after the Elgar," she says. "It's an emotion that needs to clear — and it needs some silence."

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