US cellist Alisa Weilerstein brings Dvorak to the Proms

  • Published
Cellist Alisa WeilersteinImage source, Harald Hoffman
Image caption,
Weilerstein has followed the path of some of history's great cellists by recording the Dvorak concerto

The Dvorak Cello Concerto is one of the most performed, and most recorded pieces for the instrument. Since its premiere in 1896, it has drawn some of the world's greatest instrumentalists into its orbit.

So what gives this work its enduring appeal? Ahead of her performance of the Dvorak at the Proms on 24 August, US cellist Alisa Weilerstein explains the concerto's continuing attraction.

"I think every cellist is drawn to the Dvorak."

Weilerstein has just stepped off an aeroplane, but is not short of energy to talk about the concerto.

"It's arguably the best-written major work for cello, it's completely epic and symphonic in scope. It has every range of emotion you could ask for," she says.

"It's like reading a really great novel and having every character incredibly developed."

And she says, from the point of view of the performer, it's a piece that sits well on the instrument.

"It slides beautifully in the hands, even though it's quite challenging and very virtuosic.

"But most importantly I think it's just an incredibly touching, moving work.

"I think it's one of Dvorak's best."

Image source, Decca
Image caption,
Weilerstein (R) recorded the Dvorak Cello Concerto with conductor Jiri Belohlavek

With memorable themes that have become familiar even to non-aficionados, and its thrilling orchestral sweep, the concerto has established itself as one of the pillars of the cello repertoire, and is a huge favourite with concert-goers.

It's been performed dozens of times at the BBC Proms alone.

"I think what resonates with the public - and actually with me as a listener - is its incredible lyricism," says Weilerstein, whose career has developed rapidly in the past 18 months with a series of recordings for Decca.

"And Dvorak has such a uniquely natural way with melody - it just appears to be flowing right out of him.

"This is something... very captivating I think, and very seductive."

Pivotal work

But until he wrote the piece, Dvorak had shown little interest in applying his talents to the cello, complaining it whinged in the upper register, and grumbled down below.

And he had previously written only two other mature concertos, for piano and violin.

In the final decade of his life though, the composer had a change of heart.

"I've just finished the first movement of a concerto for the cello!! Don't be surprised," Dvorak wrote to a friend in autumn 1894.

"I was surprised myself, and I still wonder why I chose to embark upon something like this."

It was to become a pivotal work for the instrument, reinventing it as a vehicle for solo writing.

Image caption,
Composer Antonin Dvorak complained about the cello's sound before writing his concerto

"The cello had not really come into the fore as a solo instrument in the 19th Century it was still thought of more as a chamber music instrument, not something that was equipped to project over an orchestra," Weilerstein says.

"But it's my opinion that the Dvorak really broke down the last barriers."

Weilerstein recorded the Cello Concerto last year with conductor Jiri Belohlavek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, putting her own interpretation out there alongside iconic recordings by the likes of Pablo Casals, Mstislav Rostropovich and Jacqueline du Pre.

But she refuses to be daunted by holding her own playing up against such giant figures of the cello world.

"If all today's musicians of my generation... thought that way, we would have no more recordings," she says.

"Of course no-one will ever take away these iconic interpretations, and I love them dearly. I grew up with them and still return to them.

"But I think that doesn't mean there isn't room for other ideas. I think it's the natural evolution of things."

Every new generation of musicians is asked how they will better the recordings of the masters that have gone before them, Weilerstein believes.

But the idea is not to top them, she says, or "take anything away, it's just to add and to expand."

Weilerstein made her professional debut with the Cleveland Orchestra at the age of 13, and has gone on to work with some of the world's most respected ensembles.

She now divides her time between the US and Europe, performing the Dvorak along with another giant of the repertoire, the Elgar Cello Concerto, which she has also recorded.

But her next album, Solo, to be released in October, is a collection of works for unaccompanied cello, charting its development as a solo instrument over the course of the past century.

"I wanted to create an album which shows that kind of survey, saying where we've come from and where we're going," says the cellist.

Image source, Robin Thomson
Image caption,
Weilerstein has recorded a collection of 20th Century solo cello works for her new album

The 20th Century saw "plenty of ideas and many, many different styles of writing," she continues, "I wanted to show the whole wide spectrum of it."

With works by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly and Chinese-American Bright Sheng, a folk element runs through the seven pieces Weilerstein chose for the album.

And she was keen to record "just the voice of the cello", without an orchestra behind it.

There is though, one obvious paragon of the solo cello repertoire that is conspicuous by its absence from Weilerstein's forthcoming collection - the cello suites written by that titanic figure of classical music, J S Bach.

Weilerstein laughs at the idea that having knocked down the Dvorak and the Elgar concertos, the Bach suites are the only big beast left for her to slay.

She has other projects on the go, she says - including more recordings - but the Bach will have to wait.

"Most cellists... would tell you that the Bach suites are the ultimate mountain to climb," she says.

"I perform them all the time... but I want to live with them a little bit longer before I put them down on disc."

Alisa Weilerstein performs the Dvorak Cello Concerto at the BBC Proms on 24 August.

Around the BBC