August 19, 2015

50 years today since Jacqueline du Pré recorded the Elgar Cello Concerto

This immortal 1965 recording remains inseparable from Elgar's concerto itself, inspiring generations of cellists to come.

When Sir John Barbirolli recorded Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Sea Pictures in August 1965, he chose two young soloists for whom he had great admiration as artists and much affection as people: the cellist Jacqueline du Pré and the mezzo-soprano Janet Baker. In 1956 he had been chairman of the jury which had awarded the 11-year-old Jacqueline du Pré the Suggia Gift. He watched with interest the development of her career and in 1965 invited her to perform the Elgar with his own Manchester-based Hallé Orchestra.

She had a very free approach to the work and Barbirolli persuaded her to bring a little more tranquillity to her interpretation and not to ‘give out’ all the time. But he admired her temperament: ‘If you haven’t an excess of everything when you’re young,’ he said, ‘what are you going to pare off as the years go by?’ Even so, some dyed-in-the-wool Elgarians felt that their interpretation was not sufficiently ‘stiff upper lip’, a view with which Elgar himself would not have agreed. When the young Menuhin had been criticised in 1932 for robbing the Violin Concerto of its ‘austerity’, the composer retorted: ‘Austerity be damned: I’m not an austere man.’

For economic reasons, EMI booked the London Symphony Orchestra rather than Barbirolli’s beloved Hallé for the recordings of both works. As a youth he had played in the LSO’s cello section in the under-rehearsed first performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto and in 1927 he had conducted the orchestra for the first time, an occasion for which he learned Elgar’s Second Symphony in 24 hours.

On 19 August 1965 they recorded the concerto’s first movement and scherzo almost in one take and the orchestra spontaneously applauded Jacqueline du Pré. The release of the recording was, as predicted, a success, although when she first heard the disc the cellist is said to have burst into tears and said: ‘This is not at all what I meant!’

The Cello Concerto dates from 1918–19, when Elgar was living for part of each year at a cottage in Sussex where he also composed his last three chamber works. He had been ill and was depressed by the slaughter of the First World War, and the concerto has an elegiac, autumnal quality: nostalgia for a world that has vanished. Yet it is also vigorous and in parts of the last movement recaptures some of the swagger and zest of his pre-1914 works. He described it as ‘a real large work & I think good & alive’.

Yet it is the sad serenity of the Adagio and the anguished outburst towards the end of the finale that haunt the listener and are so poignantly interpreted in this recording. Today it ranks among Elgar’s most popular and loved works, thanks in no small measure to this recording.