I'm moved to review this performance less because of its own qualities than that reading the reviews here you might think the only other performance worth a consideration is du Pre's. First, Clein: this is indeed a fine performance, refined, subtle, her tone and technique gentle and expressive, never lacking emotional depth, if in places a little more reserved. In the first movement Clein begins gently and wistfully, perhaps too much so - there were indeed times when I was half expecting the bow to fall off the strings- but it grows in emotional weight. In fact that is true of the whole performance. The tone, expression and shaping of the slow movement are sublime and Handley is a most sympathetic accompanist, utterly at home in this music. The moment at the end of the piece when the opening chords intrude on the reflective mood of the slow movement material, as if the composer is saying "pull yourself together Edward", grip the heart strings and pull the structure together superbly.
So the question I'm left with is: would I choose this over du Pre? Well, perhaps I might, but there are other places worth looking also. Forgetting the awful recording she made with her husband, Daniel Barenboim, the performance we all know best, made with that greatest of Elgarians, Sir John Barbirolli (by the way, a fine cellist himself), remains extraordinary, emotional, gritty, intense, but utterly unrelenting, constantly heart on sleeve. But sometimes I want a little more restraint to balance the emotive outpouring. After all, this is Elgar, a product of Victorian/Edwardian England. In fact my first choice for this work would be either Navarra, also with Barbirolli, although the sound quality precludes it as a `building a library' recommendation, or Fournier, in perhaps an unlikely partnership with the great American conductor, Alfred Wallenstein. He balances emotional depth with Gallic restraint, in a performance that has all the wistfulness of Clein, the emotion of du Pre but a greater wisdom than either; that of one who, like Elgar when composing the work, can look back on life and put the subjective, emotional side of this work into a bigger, even spiritual, context, so that amidst the angst there is something more ...something I can only describe as transcendent.
On a practical note, at this price, this performance is worth having as well as du Pre. It's also worth listening to Beatrice Harrison, who recorded with Elgar himself, but only if you can listen through the historic recording. Clein is a wonderful cellist and I wish she would record more. If I were to choose one performance, however, this would not be it. But then, for me, heretical though I know that is with most music lovers, it wouldn't be du Pre either and I would urge anyone who loves this music, or who wants to explore it for the first time, not to fall in the trap of assuming that du Pre is definitive: in the opinion of this reviewer, she is not.