It's rare that all listeners unanimously agree that a recording is a gold standard. But it's as difficult to find someone who doesn't think Jacqueline du Pre has the best Elgar Cello Concerto on record as it is to find someone who thinks the earth is flat. Such unequivocal praise from all musical realms seems eerie. Classical music fans just don't agree like this.
But it's no wonder everyone is bowled over by this disc. With effortless authority, it solves all the challenges the work poses. For those with limited familiarity with the Cello Concerto, it is Elgar's masterpiece, imbued with nostalgia and a sense of regret. It's personal, even private, with moments of otherworldly reflection that asks for no distractions. Due to the work's melancholic nature, if an interpreter presents any reticence, the mood becomes gloomy and ponderous instead of rich and soul-searching. On the other hand, if the interpreter moves too quickly, we lose sight of the depth of meaning Elgar instilled, finding ourselves wandering without decisive meaning.
Du Pre succeeds because she finds the perfect balance. She gives her all, with ravishing soul, yet she's patient, holding on and never letting go too soon. Her passion is unrestrained, but it's bent to serve her comprehensive view of the work as a whole. And that vision is one encapsulating Elgar's heartfelt sadness while showcasing intensity that nearly pulls us along. We're never hurried, though. The determination that pours out of du Pre's cello keeps us looking ahead, and even when we're mourning, we can see a ray of hope in the distance. She is also blessed with committed accompaniment from Sir John Barbirolli and the LSO. Both conductor and soloist join together to create an environment full of electricity. Barbirolli finds his perfect place, adding his own input while letting du Pre take center stage. I can't think of any drawbacks to this recording whatsoever. It seems perfect, which is why it has such devoted fans.
We don't leave the legendary realm when we move to the Sea Pictures, where Barbirolli is joined by Janet Baker. This is a calm, almost pastoral reading, but one that throbs with intense emotion. Baker's singing is almost beyond praise, unfolding naturally but with a full thrust of personality that's mesmerizing. The atmosphere is undeniably religious, somber but full of awe. In all, this is an intimate reading that is sure to warm the heart.
Barbirolli is alert and in top form in the Cockaigne Overture. He finds variety, avoiding the temptation to turn the overture into a long Pomp and Circumstance. He believes in the piece, and his genuine conducting would be hard to beat.
If you're one of the few listeners who don't own this magnificent disc, join the crowd and buy it. The praise it has garnered is deserved, every bit of it.