Bach Cello Suites Nos 1 & 2; Elgar Cello Concerto, Op 85
Jacqueline du Pré was 20 when she recorded Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Sir John Barbirolli and the LSO in August 1965 – an interpretation universally acclaimed for its profound expressiveness. A second recording, taped live in 1970 with Daniel Barenboim and the Philadelphia Orchestra, has proved more controversial; du Pré’s radiant intensity remains undimmed but instead of the nobility found in the EMI account one hears desperation, or something close to it.
This new Testament disc makes public another live document, recorded in Prague with Barbirolli and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The general shape of this performance resembles the EMI recording, not surprisingly given that the studio session had taken place a little more than a year before. But while du Pré was always an electric player, the voltage clearly increased before an audience. One hears the difference immediately as she digs into the opening solo with startling urgency. Tempi, in general, are noticeably faster; and although Barbirolli and the orchestra occasionally fall behind, the phrasing is longer-breathed and the sections flow more smoothly one into the other.
I would venture to say, too, that du Pré (onstage and a year on) finds a greater variety of mood in the score. The dolcissimo Elgar asks for at fig 8 (starting at 3’58” in the first movement) evokes an audible smile in the cellist’s sound, for example. Or try her magical way with the swooping phrase at 3’10” in the Adagio: the high note is floated beautifully in the studio but in concert her tone and timing take one’s breath away. Best of all, perhaps, is the finale’s Poco più lento (beginning at 6’42”), where du Pré’s playing has an emotive force and eloquence akin to the greatest Shakespearian oratory – Barbirolli and the orchestra provide splendid support here.
Youthful (and previously released) interpretations of Bach’s first two Cello Suites round out the disc. I had hoped for other unreleased treasures in the BBC’s archives (and, apparently, there are other live Elgar concerto recordings) but the one here is valuable enough to merit the highest possible recommendation.