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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO)

BLOCK: We're hearing the opening chords of Edward Elgar's cello concerto.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO)

BLOCK: The British composer wrote the concerto in 1919, soon after the end of World War I and it's suffused with the dark weight of that war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO)

BLOCK: This is a new recording by the 30-year-old American cellist Alisa Weilerstein. She's playing with the Berlin Staatskapelle conducted by Daniel Barenboim. And that, in itself, is noteworthy because it was recordings by Barenboim's late wife - the cellist Jacqueline Du Pre - that 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 Alisa Weilerstein.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO)

ALISA WEILERSTEIN: When I would describe Elgar's music it's, of course, very deeply emotional, but it's also very English.

BLOCK: Very English.

WEILERSTEIN: Yeah, in that there is a kind of noble resolve and even reserve. However, what's unique to Elgar's music, and what I really am drawn to, is its deeply, deeply personal quality. And in this concerto, I think that's actually one of the biggest elements, is 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.

BLOCK: Let's keep listening to the adagio, the first movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, FIRST MOVEMENT)

WEILERSTEIN: This is interesting. The theme which is now developed but which starts in the violas. There's this really an amazing story about Elgar. 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.

BLOCK: Ah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, FIRST MOVEMENT)

WEILERSTEIN: This kind of theme, I mean, 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 comes to this incredibly devastating conclusion.

BLOCK: The huge scale.

WEILERSTEIN: Yes.

BLOCK: Up to what note?

WEILERSTEIN: Up to a very high E.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, FIRST MOVEMENT)

WEILERSTEIN: It actually always gives me chills, this moment.

BLOCK: That's got to be an incredible feeling when you land on that final note.

WEILERSTEIN: Oh, yeah. There's kind of being taken over by the full force of the orchestra right afterwards.

BLOCK: Ah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO 2ND MOVEMENT)

BLOCK: The piece shifts very dramatically in the second movement to sort of perpetual motion. What do you do to recalibrate yourself emotionally, as you're playing this piece in the dramatic sweeping tones of the first movement, into this very frenetic pace of the second?

WEILERSTEIN: Well, in a way, we're very, very complex beings. And, you know, we can come from this really somber, sort of 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. Like you said, it is a really, kind of 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, 2ND MOVEMENT)

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: How fast can you go?

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Test the limits there.

WEILERSTEIN: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO)

BLOCK: You started playing the cello when you were very, very tiny.

WEILERSTEIN: Yes.

BLOCK: And I gather this was a piece that you would play, as a very young girl; you would listen to over and over.

WEILERSTEIN: Yes. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, 2ND MOVEMENT)

WEILERSTEIN: Jacqueline du Pre was my - is, still, actually she was my cello hero. And when I was a very little girl, when I could, you know, kind of barely play the cello, I was still very much in love with the cello. And I, in fact, tried to teach myself all these pieces that were much too advanced for me, including the Dvorak concerto, Elgar concerto, 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.

And so, I began to learn the Elgar concerto when I was 12 - I began to learn it in earnest. And then I realized I'd have to put her recordings away very suddenly. Because as much as I adore those recordings, I knew how huge her personality was. And there's just something absolutely wonderful, but 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 for quite a while, because I needed to develop my own relationship with the score.

BLOCK: The third movement is the adagio. Let's take a listen to the start here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, THIRD MOVEMENT)

BLOCK: Alisa Weilerstein, talk a bit about the third movement of the Elgar concerto that we're listening to now.

WEILERSTEIN: I think this is actually, might be my favorite movement of the concerto. This is where you really, really look inside. And for me, actually, this movement is certainly about nostalgia but it's also about love.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, THIRD MOVEMENT)

WEILERSTEIN: And this part now, which we're hearing, if you remember it comes back in the last movement - the very end of the last movement. And when it does it's the most devastating thing you can imagine. It's just heartbreaking. And I think these qualities are really unique to Elgar. I don't hear this kind of almost nakedness in much other music that I can think of at all, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, THIRD MOVEMENT)

BLOCK: Let's move on to the final movement of the Elgar concerto.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, FINAL MOVEMENT)

BLOCK: Do you have a favorite part of this last movement?

WEILERSTEIN: Probably right before the end, right before the very opening comes back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, FINAL MOVEMENT)

WEILERSTEIN: In this bit that you're playing now, he writes a kind of timing marking on almost every bar. And the ritards, they kind of go over the bar lines, and then the a tempos - when you take the tempo back, in other words - they come back and it's sometimes in the middle of the bars. So you never have a sharp corner. It's always rising and falling. And you can imagine somebody really breathing or having difficulty breathing

BLOCK: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, FINAL MOVEMENT)

BLOCK: That breathing you're talking about?

WEILERSTEIN: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, FINAL MOVEMENT)

WEILERSTEIN: Yes, he has his accents on each one is a, you know, these deep sighs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, FINAL MOVEMENT)

WEILERSTEIN: And very soon, the third movement will come back, which is what I was talking about before.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, THIRD MOVEMENT)

BLOCK: So you've settled back into that theme?

WEILERSTEIN: Yes, but here it's - there is such a past now.

BLOCK: What do you mean?

WEILERSTEIN: The music has a past now. You're hearing it, you know, after this massive last movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, THIRD MOVEMENT)

WEILERSTEIN: And there, of course, is the opening - also with a past.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELGAR'S CELLO CONCERTO, FIRST MOVEMENT)

BLOCK: Do you find yourself approaching this theme very differently in the final movement...

WEILERSTEIN: Yes.

BLOCK: ...than the first? Exactly. And actually this is something Barenboim talks about a lot. This is, well, when something returns. It has a past. So much has happened in between when you first heard the theme and when you hear it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Alisa Weilerstein, do you remember when you finished playing the Elgar concerto in Berlin with Daniel Barenboim? You come to that conclusion and you look over at him. What was that moment? What happened?

WEILERSTEIN: I'm trying to put myself back in that place because, you know, when you're so immersed in the music, it's kind of like trying to remember a dream in a way. At the very 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 it's not my normal way of thinking. But I was very much kind of in character, let's say.

BLOCK: Not a place you want to stay, probably.

WEILERSTEIN: No, no. It's actually one reason I'm reluctant to play encores after the other.

BLOCK: Is that right?

WEILERSTEIN: Yeah. It's something - it's an emotion that needs to kind of clear. I think it needs some silence to clear.

BLOCK: Well, Alisa Weilerstein, thank you so much.

WEILERSTEIN: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me on.

BLOCK: Alisa Weilerstein. Her new recording of the Elgar cello concerto is with the Berlin Staatskapelle, Daniel Barenboim conducting.

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