Jaqueline du Pré in Portrait

On DVD at last, the wonderful portrait of a great cellist, plus superb music-making

Author: 
Edward Greenfield

Jaqueline du Pré in Portrait

  • Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
  • Piano Trios, No. 5 in D, Op. 70/1, 'Ghost'

Christopher Nupen’s 1967 film profile of Jacqueline du Pré is a television classic. The updating, which Nupen made in 1981 when multiple sclerosis had tragically put an end to du Pré’s career, intensifies its emotional impact.

The wonder is that the film contains so many key comments about the great cellist and the nature of her artistry. Still only 22 at the time of Nupen’s interview, Du Pré gives a most endearing account of first hearing a cello on the radio and asking for whatever it was that made ‘that noise’. She remembers her first cello – far too big for a four-year-old – and how her mother (also interviewed) wrote little pieces for her to play. Du Pré even plays one of the pieces, and we see her mother’s drawings in the manuscript.

William Pleeth, the teacher she describes as her ‘cello daddy’, remembers how the playing of the little girl was magnetic, phrasing naturally and imaginatively without being told, while John Barbirolli remembers the audition for the Suggia Gift three years later, when after a couple of minutes listening he turned to his colleague, the great viola player William Primrose and said (in his gravelly voice): ‘This is IT!’

All this is extraordinarily vivid, as is Daniel Barenboim’s description of his first meeting with du Pré at pianist Fou Ts’Ong’s house, when ‘instead of saying “good evening” we played Brahms’. The half-hour of the original 1967 profile is packed full of such illuminating details, leading to a performance of the Elgar Concerto, with Barenboim conducting the New Philharmonia. Nupen told me that after the rehearsal for it he asked Barenboim if he could conduct without the score, as the music stand was getting in the way of the cameras. Overnight, Barenboim learnt what was for him a new score, and the performance has a warmth and intensity to match that of du Pré’s classic 1965 EMI recording that has so long been a favourite.

Nupen’s 1981 updating in colour comes as a 10-minute introduction to the main black-and-white film. The most illuminating sequence is with Moray Welsh, whom she coaches in the Elgar Concerto. If Du Pré has been seen as the most spontaneous of artists, her minute analysis of the work confounds the assumptions associated with that viewpoint.

The Ghost offers a performance of Beethoven’s Ghost Trio, recorded in 1970 in the atmospheric setting of St John’s, Smith Square in London. It vividly conveys the rapport between du Pré, Barenboim and their violinist friend Pinchas Zukerman.

The DVD is filled out by a compilation of clips from some of Nupen’s films from the ’70s which, like The Ghost, give insights into the working of an amazing group of musician friends, then all emerging onto the world stage, including Vladimir Ashkenazy (The Vital Juices are Russian and with Barenboim in Double Concerto), Itzhak Perlman and Zubin Mehta, who plays double-bass in Schubert’s Trout Quintet. All are to reappear in full on DVD.

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