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 somehow found an irrefutable 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
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, to a society teetering on the edge of change and in need of musical reassurance.
I find her reinterpretation of the concerto 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 late 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.
Artists: Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
This recording is released by Decca on 4 February.
Read our interview with Alisa Weilerstein, where she talks about Elgar, Barenboim, and meeting Elliott Carter.
Norman Lebrecht is a prolific commentator on music and cultural affairs and an award-winning novelist. See his blog Slipped Disc.