The DuPre Mastery, in Retrospect
It’s hardly surprising that a mystique has attached to Jacqueline DuPre, the British cellist who died in 1987 at age 42, 15 years after her brief career was ended by the onset of multiple sclerosis, the crippling disease to which she would eventually succumb.
The existing circle of DuPre admirers was considerably widened with the posthumous re-release of her videotaped performance of, and irresistible physical presence in, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, the work that made her reputation in the early ‘60s while bringing the score previously unimagined popularity and setting a standard by which subsequent interpretations are judged.
Now, in a mid-priced EMI set (68132, six CDs), the legend can be separated from the accomplishment as never before, demystification being at least one order of the journalistic day.
For some writers. To these ears, the set confirms the gifts and appeal not of some otherworldly creature, but of an immensely gifted and quite wonderfully human--and flawed--artist. It’s the approachability of her style that shines through the best of this revealing collection.
The 1965 Elgar recording re mains almost painfully communicative. It’s a wonderfully old-fashioned interpretation: full of sighing rubatos and the nowadays-excoriated portamentos. Her work is almost intuitively seconded by that most understanding and warmhearted of conductors, Sir John Barbirolli, who directs the London Symphony. One among many wonders here is that a reportedly unworldly woman, not quite 21 years old, could tap into and project the vein of infinite longing, even heartbreak, that suffuses this incomparable work.
DuPre didn’t achieve comparable popular success with her next concerto recording, of Delius’ neglected 1921 opus. Yet it displays another shining facet of her artistry: the seeming instinctive ability to pick up structural threads, to make an entity out of what in lesser hands--than hers and those of her conductor, Sir Malcolm Sargent--seems formless.
Other treasures are the Beethoven Sonatas, Opus 69 and Opus 102, No. 1, in which the cellist, ever inclined to dream, would seem to be mismatched with a fierily go-ahead pianist, Stephen Bishop (as he was then known). But, surprisingly, the opposites are immensely attractive and ultimately compatible, with each giving up just enough individuality to create a working partnership.
Less successful, although not without their moments, are the familiar concertos of Dvorak, Schumann and Saint-Saens. The villain of these pieces is DuPre’s conductor (and husband), Daniel Barenboim, whose glutinous orchestral backings offer her nothing to play against, so to speak.
Both Haydn concertos dawdle too much for Classical comfort, their failings attributable equally to DuPre’s inaptly lush tone--as with some excellent singers, it wasn’t easily emitted--and the soft-centered accompaniments of Barbirolli and Barenboim in the concertos in D and C, respectively.
Two Bach unaccompanied suites, the earliest entries here (1961), heard via BBC radio transcriptions, are labored in the extreme, although admirers of the old Casals edition may not think so. But her loving treatment of the sonatas of Chopin and Franck constitutes prime stuff, a combination of Romantic freedom and linear clarity, thanks in no small part to the masterly keyboard partnership of one Daniel Barenboim.
Elsewhere, two recently released cello recordings deserving of particular attention. In the first, Russian-born Mischa Maisky plays the Beethoven Sonatas Opus 69 and Opus 102, Nos. 1 and 2, as half of a brilliantly theatrical team--which is intended as a compliment--with the ever-inventive pianist Martha Argerich (Deutsche Grammophon 437 514).
And via Bulgarian Radio tapes (no dates supplied), Los Angeles’ own Nathaniel Rosen displays his big, handsomely craggy tone in a forceful reading of Tchaikovsky’s often wimpy “Rococo” Variations (and some attractive shorter Tchaikovsky pieces) and offers a darkly powerful, propulsive Shostakovich First Concerto, both with the thoughtful collaboration of Emil Tabakov, who conducts the Sofia Philharmonic (John Marks Records JMR 3).