Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7

The New York Philharmonic on Thursday, January 11.

Is there a rule that since the legendary Jacqueline du Pré made Elgar’s Cello Concerto her signature piece, the work now belongs solely to young, photogenic female cellists? That was my first thought when twenty-four-year-old Alisa Weilerstein walked onstage Thursday night, but I’m being flip, of course, and dreadfully unfair. Weilerstein delivered a ravishing performance of the concerto with the New York Philharmonic, and perhaps the work lends itself to younger soloists. Although Edward Elgar composed it quite late in his career, the cello concerto’s passionate intensity can feel quite youthful.

Weilerstein’s fervent bowing and throbbing vibrato certainly fit the mood of the piece. And here let me digress for a moment (I’ve already been crude, so let’s run with it) to mention that when I studied editing in graduate school, two of my friends and I had an extremely juvenile running joke about words one should avoid because trashy romance novels have overwhelmed their connotative meanings. Moist was on the list, as were manhood and heaving. Throbbing was at the top, so when I use the phrase throbbing vibrato, I do so while embracing all undertones and implications. Frankly, they’re completely appropriate for the concerto. If the first movement’s crescendoing climax, in particular, doesn’t feel like, well, a climax, you’re doing something wrong.

Weilerstein wasn’t doing anything wrong, and neither was anyone in the orchestra, led by conductor Zubin Mehta. The performance was gorgeous, impassioned, and impeccably balanced between soloist and ensemble, with every elision, echo, and entrance working perfectly.

The applause for Weilerstein was so sustained that she gave an encore, one of Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello. Her performance of that baroque gem was too romantic for my tastes because she indulged in much of the same thick vibrato and swooning glissandi she used in the Elgar. True, I’m a big dogmatic in my preference for an elegantly crisp interpretation of the Bach suites, probably because of my years of organ study, but Weilerstein’s style of playing strikes me as better suited for the raw emotion of the Romantic period.

After intermission, the orchestra, now considerably larger, performed Bruckner’s seventh symphony. The Bruckner is a typical symphony of the German romantic tradition: grand and authoritative and forever teasing the audience with false endings before finally clocking in at more than an hour in length. (Bruckner himself was Austrian, but he idolized Wagner, and it shows.)

That brand of magnificent excess isn’t my favorite (my brother and I have a theory that one’s aesthetic tastes can be predicted fairly consistently by considering whether one prefers the poetry of Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson; I prefer Dickinson), but I still enjoyed Bruckner’s symphony because it so rarely becomes bombastic. Bruckner uses the large orchestra for variety, not volume. The seventh symphony often possesses an almost chamber-like texture, weaving just three or four strong, distinct lines together. When Bruckner eventually reaches the inevitable bombast of the finale, it works because he hasn’t overdone it.

Sean and I attended the concert Thursday night mainly to hear the Elgar concerto, which we both know well. The Bruckner symphony, however, was largely unfamiliar to me, and I enjoyed the surprises of the piece. As Sean and I walked back to our subway stop afterward, I thought about how fortunate I am to get to know Bruckner, for example, with the New York Philharmonic. An hour of prosaically played German romanticism would have been unbearable; an hour of superbly played German romanticism was a treat.

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