Edward Elgar
Cello Concerto; Sea Pictures > Jacqueline du Pré; Janet Baker
(EMI Classics 56219)

The resurgence of interest in the life and recordings of Jacqueline du Pré in the wake of the success of the film Hilary and Jackie had one undeniably good consequence: although it will confuse the issue for a lot of people as to why they like the Elgar cello concerto, it will at least bring the work into an appropriate prominence (as opposed to the false prominence of a David Helfgott received post-Shine).

In the classical music world, this recording has never been out of print, and has been regarded for more than thirty years as the unbeatable performance of "the Elgar." Du Pré performs with the London Symphony Orchestra (long before its denigration to "symphonic rock" tributes to Genesis and Jethro Tull) conducted by John Barbirolli.

Du Pré recorded this work also with husband Daniel Barenboim conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra (it is that recording that is used in the film), but the EMI Classics recording is the one to have. Extremely powerful and communicative with a directness that is rare in classical music, du Pré's Elgar is, pure and simple, a masterpiece.

For people who do not like classical music, this is still an amazing CD, and for anyone with the slightest inclination toward classical music, it is just staggering.

Elgar wrote the concerto in 1919 as a rumination on the first world war, and it is by turns wistful, sad, angry, tense, triumphant, and contemplative. Du Pré is the ideal interpreter of the work, bringing to it a deep personal connection that makes it very fresh even thirty years on.

Classical music critics generally agree on du Pré's preeminence with the Elgar even when they don't agree on du Pée's fundamental contribution to the history of cello performance in general. The only other classical work I can compare it to in terms of the absolutely ideal match of performer and work is Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations; in both cases the performer was the architect of establishing the work as a major statement rather than a historical curio.

That du Pré recorded this piece when she was 19 (and arguably at the peak of her short career) is remarkable; that she would not have the chance to contribute many more performances of this caliber is one of the genuine tragedies of 20th century music. People like to consider things like "Well what if Jim Morrison had lived, well, what then?" but in Jacqueline du Pré's case, her talent in the early part of her career was boundless.

She certainly might have gone on to become regarded as the greatest cello artist of all time, but her career was derailed by MS, much like mine has been derailed by relentless jokes about MS. (I will keep them to a minimum here.)

The somewhat romantic image of the tragic musician cut down in her prime is what fuels many people's worship of du Pre, just as it fuels many others' dismissal of her. Personally, I don't care one way or the other what is "right," and can only offer up the opinion that du Pre's Elgar is one of the very best classical CDs you can own, and one that you will return to again and again.

Barbirolli brings a definitive English approach to the quintessentially English style of Elgar, and Jackie's performance is simply searing. It is beautiful music, not at all "background music," and a masterpiece all around.

This edition of the recording is one of the two or three absolute gems in the EMI crown. The concerto is paired with Elgar's "Sea Pictures," an earlier opus of five songs that represent Elgar's best efforts at songwriting. Known primarily for the cello concerto, the "Enigma Variations," and the "Pomp and Circumstance" march (that's what you graduated to, if you graduated at all, you dumb fuck), Elgar was not a great composer of vocal works, but the evocative Sea Pictures serve as a very nice complement to the comparative violence of the cello concerto.

Janet Baker turns in a superlative performance of these quietly majestic pieces, all based on poems relating to the sea. The whole set of songs is rewarding, with "Where Corals Lie" and "The Swimmer" being the highest points.

For a solid representation of Elgar at his best, do not pass Go – head straight for this disc. Everyone involved – du Pré, Baker, Barbirolli, and the LSO – performs at the highest caliber. And don't worry, MS is not contagious! (Audience boos loudly.)

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Review by Joe Gargle