English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) wrote his Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 toward the end of his career in 1919, and because he published it just after the close of World War I, a lot of it sounds melancholy and solemn. Nevertheless, it’s among the most-popular things he ever wrote. Therefore, it’s good to have this classic recording of it so readily available, along with the Sea Pictures and the Cockaigne Overture, all of them remastered by EMI in sound that’s as good as anything around and at a mid price that’s hard to beat.
The fact is, no one has really topped this 1965 performance of the Concerto by young cellist Jacqueline du Pre, conductor Sir John Barbirolli, and the London Symphony Orchestra. The booklet note suggests that some people criticized Ms. du Pre at the time for having too much spirit, too much energy, in her interpretation, but Sir John, one of the world’s première Elgarians, defended her, saying that such exuberance was necessary in the young. Besides, Elgar himself had remarked years earlier that he preferred vigorous readings of his works because “I am not an austere man.”
The first movement of the Concerto offers a pensive, bittersweet reminiscence of a quieter, more placid world before the War, with a big, bold part for the cello that starts immediately, although it strikes a rather solemn mood and grave air. The second movement Scherzo seems to represent the feeling of confidence and exhilaration so many young soldiers felt going off to War, the music creating an aura of light with its zippy pace, cavorting here and there. The third-movement Adagio--the soul of the work--seems more a touching, full-blown lamentation than a reflective or contemplative piece; it also seems a little jarring in its musical juxtaposition with the preceding Scherzo. Then, in the finale, Elgar is all over the place, marking it Allegro - Moderato - Allegro, ma non troppo, part grave, part celebratory. The Great War, devastating in its consequences, was over, and there were new opportunities on the horizon, a new world shaping up, and we hear the changes in lyrical, energetic, enthusiastic, melodramatic, sad, quiet, and, finally, exuberant tones.
The first and forth movements of the Concerto sound the most wistful, even nostalgic, and it is here that no one can accuse Ms. du Pre of being too spirited; she is, in fact, quite at peace with the world in a heartfelt performance that commands one’s respect from start to finish.
The accompanying Sea Pictures, sung by Janet Baker, appear more like the Elgar of old, having been written over twenty years earlier, sounding in part, like “Sabbath Morning at Sea,” similar in mood to his pomp-and-ceremony days. The addition on the disc of Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture is icing on the cake, a wonderfully evocative, colorful, and affectionate orchestral description of Victorian London.
EMI first issued the Concerto and the Sea Pictures on CD in 1986, and this newer disc in their “Great Recordings of the Century” series improves further upon the sound. Using EMI’s “Abbey Road Technology” (ART), the remastering engineers noise-shaped the sound “via the Prism SNS system for optimum sound quality.” The sound compared to the older CD release is slightly smoother and a touch more dynamic. And, of course, the overall sonic picture is vintage EMI, with a realistic orchestral stage and a natural tonal balance. I might add that since EMI released this particular disc, they found it so popular, they released it three or four more times. So, as of this writing, you’ll find the exact same remastering in a number of different guises, different album covers.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: