Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 38


Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Opus 85
Koussevitzky Music Shed, August 3, 1969

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Jaqueline du Pré, cello

Release: 07/27/2012  


Available for purchase starting July 28, 2012 8:30 AM


Background on the Music

Tanglewood 75 Archival Program Cover Edward Elgar composed his Cello Concerto in the summer of 1919. He was 62 years old and very conscious of the degree to which his music had passed out of fashion. The concerto was in a way an elegiac farewell to a world that had vanished in a great war; although he didn't know it, the concerto was also Elgar's farewell to creative life - it represented a step in a new direction, away from the roast-beef-of-old-England style that had been one basis of his popularity, but this new style was not one he found himself able to pursue. His beloved wife Alice, a poet and novelist, died in 1920, and although Elgar lived until 1934, he never completed another work, although he left sketches for a symphony and a piano concerto.

The opening theme came to Elgar in the immediate aftermath of a tonsillectomy. He asked for a piece of paper so he could write the music down, but it was a year before he set about composing the concerto in his rented hideaway in Sussex. The concerto, like the Second Piano Concerto of Brahms, is in four movements rather than the traditional three, although Elgar groups his movements in pairs. Like the Dvořák Cello Concerto, the Elgar brings back music from earlier in the piece for a reflective moment. But the main thing is that the Elgar Concerto doesn't sound like anything else, including earlier works by Elgar. It is personal in a new way, and full of private feeling rather than public display. It is also resolutely unsentimental in its statement of strong and sometimes conflicting emotions.

The premiere of the Cello Concerto was a disaster it took the piece many years to recover from. The fault was not that of the music. Elgar conducted the concerto himself, but the rest of the program was in the hands of the conductor Albert Coates who took most of the available rehearsal time, to the fury of Lady Alice, who called him a "brute'' and a "selfish, ill-mannered bounder."

The concerto enjoyed several distinguished interpreters, including John Barbirolli, who as a young cellist was soloist in the concerto before he became one of its most notable interpreters as a conductor; and it was he who conducted Jacqueline du Pré's visionary first recording. Two of du Pré's teachers were also notable interpreters of the concerto - Paul Tortelier, who was at one time the principal cello of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; and Mstislav Rostropovich, who reportedly decided never to play the concerto again after he heard du Pré perform it. Rostropovich never recorded the piece, but there is a broadcast of a performance before he heard du Pré's interpretation. More than anyone else, du Pré was responsible for the concerto's becoming a repertory piece; everything in her playing was "out there," and for that reason her interpretation remains a dangerous example for others to follow; but she herself played with such utter conviction that it swept all objections aside.

Curiously, the Argentine-born Daniel Barenboim has conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra on only nine occasions, two at Tanglewood, six in Boston, and one on tour. He has appeared as piano soloist with the orchestra on 8 occasions, plus one appearance, under the orchestra's auspices, playing a Schubert duet with James Levine, for a total that matches his podium record. This is of course not a reliable index to his long and remarkable double career as conductor and pianist which has taken him around the world, brought him important posts (music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and l'Orchestre de Paris and the Staatsoper, Berlin) and major operatic engagements at the Bayreuth Festival, the Metropolitan Opera, and elsewhere. Both careers have been amply documented on recordings and DVDs, and he has been awarded many honors and prizes.

This Tanglewood performance is Barenboim's debut with the BSO, and features his legendary partnership with his wife, Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987). Du Pré was a cellist of astonishing technical, interpretive, and musical gifts whose brilliant career was cut short by multiple sclerosis. She was only 28 when the progress of her disease made it impossible for her to play anymore; before her last public appearance she was not even able to open her cello case. This tragic story has been the subject of books, documentaries, and even a repellent movie, and has led to preoccupations with her psychological issues, her illness, and her death instead of her legacy of life-affirming performances.

Of all the works she performed, the one with which she became most closely identified was the Elgar Concerto. She learned it at 13, played it in her formal orchestral debut concert in the Royal Festival Hall in 1962, and in 1965 made her now legendary first studio recording of the piece with John Barbirolli conducting. She played the concerto many times before her final performance of it in 1973 and recorded it again; recordings of various live performances have also circulated. But that does not make this Tanglewood performance superfluous. Barenboim may not have known what du Pré was going to do at any given moment, but he did know how to follow her and how to provide a supportive context for her individual views on the piece. Du Pré was an instinctive and spontaneous artist who operated from a ground plan, but who was invariably inspired by colleagues and circumstances, and her own risk-taking personality, to explore further and deeper dimensions of the music.

Richard Dyer



"Sunday's first Berkshire sun in weeks brought forth a tremendous throng which listened attentively to Jacqueline du Pré's intensely subjective performance of Sir Edward Elgar's lyrical, introspective Cello Concerto. With her husband, Daniel Barenboim, conducting, the performance brought forth a standing, shouting ovation in which every member of the orchestra joined with rare enthusiasm. Miss du Pré plays not so much like the 'angel' of her press material as a demonic genius who is probably the most emotional and technically assured string player since Niccolo Paganini. She is, in every wonderful sense of the word, incredible."
-Byron Belt, Long Island Press