Few concertos begin as ominously as Elgar’s for the cello. When the soloist’s bow bites into those stark E minor chords, it’s like a summons – and not to cocktails and a gossip. What we know of the work’s genesis reinforces this sombre impression. Elgar began writing it towards the end of the First World War.
The Edwardian world, his world, had been blown apart. Many friends were dead. He had turned 60 and just undergone a throat operation. Alice, his stalwart wife, was ailing.
To pile misery on misery, Elgar accurately sensed that taste had turned against him – a suspicion cruelly confirmed when the grossly under-rehearsed premiere of this concerto was received with indifference in November 1919. He never completed another major work, though he lived for 15 more years.
All this suggests that the composer was feeling pretty low. On the concerto’s final page he even wrote ‘RIP’. No wonder that some cellists play the piece like a requiem. But is such morbidity valid? Much of the music is vitality itself. Elgar himself described it as ‘a real large work and, I think, good and alive’.
The best recording
Jacqueline du Pré (cello); London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
Warner Classics 6230752
Seven years after John Barbirolli conducted André Navarra’s version of this concerto in 1958, he found himself recording the Elgar again. This time the soloist was a British sensation, just turned 20.
Her name was Jacqueline du Pré. She opted for audaciously slow speeds and even more daring dynamics, often producing something between a whisper and a whimper, and intensifying the solo line with old-fashioned portamenti. Barbirolli must have been the first to realise that du Pré’s interpretation was unlike any other. It still is.
Elgar himself said that this concerto summed up ‘a man’s attitude to life’, and I think this places an obligation on intepreters to dig deep into their own souls. Which is exactly what du Pré did, over and over again, when she performed this work. Perhaps in her later recordings (three live-concert versions; one for television) she overdid the soulful angst.
Her 1971 recording with Daniel Barenboim, for instance, seems almost a self-parody. But back in 1965, guided by the wise and humane Barbirolli, she achieved a much more satisfactory balance between head and heart. Hers is not a performance that I would want to live through every week. But it’s the one recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto that I would not want to live without.
Three more great recordings
Beatrice Harrison (cello); New Symphony Orchestra/Sir Edward Elgar
The question is, did Elgar really imagine the piece as unrelenting tragedy? One way to answer that is to dig out the 1928 recording that the composer conducted, with Beatrice Harrison as soloist.
What you find comes as a bit of a shock. Elgar allows Harrison to pull the music around, but in the orchestral passages he surges on with amazing zest. Clearly, he didn’t regard the piece as particularly doom-laden.
Yo-Yo Ma (cello); London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
Somewhere between du Pre’s hyperactive romanticism and Steven Isserlis’s monkish austerity [in his early first recording in 1988] is Yo-Yo Ma. Lovingly accompanied by André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, he creates a stunning sonic landscape: misty, mellow, very Cotswoldsy. His timbre is like the delicate brush-strokes of a great watercolourist.
And in the fiendish second movement, where several cellists don’t quite convince in technical terms (including the otherwise dignified Julian Lloyd Webber), Ma gives a model demonstration of how to deliver those scampering semiquavers with rock-steady clarity and intonation.
Truls Mork (cello); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
The mood is much darker on a recording made in 1999 by the Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Mørk turns the piece into an epic trudge through ominous terrain.
And Rattle, a superbly responsive accompanist, enhances this sense of a figure battling against malevolent fate like some woebegone Thomas Hardy heroine, by bringing out the thickest, deepest sounds he can find in Elgar’s orchestration.
This article by Richard Morrison was first published in the May 2004 issue of BBC Music Magazine. Which recordings of Elgar’s Cello Concerto made since then would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments below.