CD of the Week – Elgar, Carter: Cello Concertos
Ever since a long-haired blonde with a raging migraine entered a dungeon studio 48 years ago to play the Elgar cello concerto, the beat-that recording has been Jacqueline du Pré’s on EMI. Musicians sensed it on that hot August day in 1965, converging from all over town on a whisper that something extraordinary was going on at Kingsway Hall. And the primacy of that performance was confirmed when Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist’s cellist, refused to record the Elgar on the grounds that Jackie had made it her own.
Many have since had a shot, and fallen short. Not on thoughtfulness or skill – Natalie Clein and Paul Watkins are two fine recent interpreters – but in shaking off the shadow of a 20 year-old girl who found an intuitive understanding of an old man’s lament for a life destroyed by the first world war.
Alisa Weilerstein is the first cellist I have heard who plays the concerto as if Jackie never lived. Her entry is marked by a distinctive restraint, a refusal to make the big statement until the narrative is in full sway. Phrase by phrase, she takes us away from the terror and the pity and deep into a golden beauty. She does not so much detach the concerto from Elgar’s time as give it a greater relevance to present fragilities, of society teetering on the edge of change.
I find her reinterpretation utterly convincing. It is all the more daring for having, as conductor, none other than Daniel Barenboim, who was first married to du Pré, and an orchestra, the Berlin Staaskapelle, that has no roots in Elgar and his sound world. Against all odds, it works.
The pairings are even bolder. Weilerstein takes on and breathes life into a phlegmatic concerto by the centenarian American modernist Elliott Carter, a work of wisps and flutters and dark rustlings in the night. And she winds up with an irresistible reading of Bloch’s supplicatory Kol Nidrei, a fusion of ancient fears into eternal hope. For sheer courage, strong convictions and fabulous playing, nothing less than five stars will do.
Three young pianists
Two Bach partitas, separated by a toccata, played on a modern piano with a dreamy air and no regard for political or academic correctness. Ten years ago, no serious label would have dared deny the dogmas of historically informed performance (HIP), but Fray is one of a new breed who play Bach as they feel it should sound, not as some professor has decreed it must. This is Bach rich in fantasy and spontaneity. Don’t ask permission. Just listen. You’ll want more.
The little-known travel preludes of Alexander Scrabin, dating from the 1890s, sound more Mediterranean than Russian and the performer seems to need more than the average number of fingers and feet. Negrin, a Spanish pianist, tells a beguiling adventure story, rich in thrills and spills, and in a slightly swoony sound that is just right for these pieces.
Winner of the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition, Kozhukhin plays three sonatas by Serge Prokofiev (nos 6-8) with intense power and concentration but none of the ominousness that these wartime works require. Some may warm to Kozhukhin’s an-historic neutrality; I couldn’t.
Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.