Rarest Magic: Jacqueline du Pre, Sir John Barbirolli and the Elgar Cello Concerto
"She just gave herself up to the music. It's extreme playing, which touches people, it goes straight to the heart. Its was authentic, it was her." Diana McVeagh author of Elgar the Music Maker.
Written by Martin Buzacott
It's exactly 50 years this week since cellist Jacqueline du Pre, conductor Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra gathered in Kingsway Hall, London to record what most people still regard as the definitive recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto. Released by EMI, it has never been out of the catalogue, the passion and intensity of the performance still speaking to audiences two generations later, and routinely appearing in lists of the greatest recordings of all time.
To mark the half-century, this special Music Makers feature traces the story behind the recording. And what a story that is, going back to the last year of the First World War, 1918, when Elgar was 61. After going into hospital for a tonsillectomy, Elgar awoke from the anaesthetic and began sketching a musical theme. It was to become his last full-scale orchestral work, the Cello Concerto in E minor, filled with nostalgia and regret but also arguably his personal favourite among all his works. He once remarked to a friend that if ever they were wandering England's Malvern Hills and they heard that theme on the breeze, not to be alarmed, it was only him, Elgar, humming it!
The work's premiere under the composer in 1919 was a disaster owing to lack of rehearsal time, but playing in the LSO that fateful night was a 19-year-old cellist named John Barbirolli. Two years later Barbirolli played it himself as soloist, but his future lay not as a cellist, but as possibly the greatest Elgar conductor of them all.