Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan: Deeply expressive chemistry at the Terrace Theater

January 20, 2014

Musical partnerships are elusive. They require like-minded artists with complementary talents, untold hours in the rehearsal room, and that most rare and ineffable of qualities: chemistry.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan have forged an extraordinarily sympathetic collaboration that has genuine chemistry. In a remarkable recital Sunday night presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, the duo performed a program of Debussy, Schubert, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff that offered deeply expressive, highly intuitive music-making.

The pair transcended the traditional roles of soloist and accompanist and instead offered a partnership of two equals in keen musical dialogue. Weilerstein, 31, has been lauded as one of the most exciting cellists of her generation. She commands a prodigious technique that allows her to communicate every whispered sigh, passionate lament and dramatic outburst of her favored Romantic repertory. The Israeli-born Barnatan, 34, is the more reserved of the pair. In recital, he provided supple, sensitive support but also dynamic, virtuoso playing when called to take the lead.

The fragmentary writing of Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano offered the opportunity to demonstrate the duo’s rich communicative gifts. They captured every restless shift in mood and tone, from the declamatory opening for piano to the rhapsodic cello line and the intricate interplay between the two parts. Schubert’s Fantasy in C, D. 934, showcased the pair’s lyrical refinement in its songlike writing, while stretching Weilerstein’s technique to its limits in dazzling passage work originally written for the violin.

The seven short selections from Shostakovich’s Op. 34 Preludes, arranged for cello and piano, were effectively characterized mood pieces. The concluding piece, Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, played to each of the musician’s strengths: Weilerstein’s gorgeous tone and expansive phrasing and Barnatan’s blend of power and sensitivity. With their evident rapport, they made Rachmaninoff’s sweeping lines, thunderous outbursts and surges of melody come into full, expressive life.

Simon Chin is a freelance writer.

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