Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85 *
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Jacqueline du Pré (cello) & Alfredo Campoli (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra*
Recorded 7 January 1967 at the Bolshoi Hall, Moscow, and 8 December 1964 at the Royal College of Advanced Technology, Salford (broadcast as part of the BBC International Concert Hall series on 16 March 1965)
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: July 2021
CD No: Barbirolli Society CD and DVD: SJB 1102-03
Duration: 66 & 38 [DVD] minutes
You could be forgiven for wondering if we really need yet another Elgar Cello Concerto featuring Jacqueline du Pré and John Barbirolli, given there is the classic studio version (Warner Classics) and as part of the same BBCSO tour, a performance given four days earlier in Prague (Testament). Well, the answer is ‘yes’, because as the table shows (with lead-in times and audience noise eliminated and without pitch correction in Prague, where the third movement runs 15 seconds fast), in Moscow the tempos are very different given how concise the work is. To place this in an interpretive context, if you look at the studio version, there is massive attack and intensity, rubato, tempo and dynamic variation, never less than generous vibrato and a uniquely improvisatory quality. In Prague all of these qualities are present, but the first movement is more urgent, the already fleet Scherzando even pacier, the sublime Adagio even more profound, at a far quicker tempo the finale has greater attack and rhythmic panache and being live there is an extra frisson of excitement and spontaneity.
Compared with Prague, in Moscow the opening Moderato is more introspective, more soul-searching, but there is no sense of self-indulgence, as to whether it is better than Prague, whose searing intensity is equally compelling, is open to question and personal preference, but in Prague the Scherzando really smiles and never sounds rushed. In the Adagio both performances plumb depths of emotion completely beyond the comprehension of any the ‘virtuosi’ who now roll off the production-line. There isn’t much to choose between the two in the finale, but Prague has more élan.
With regard to Barbirolli, he was completely at one with du Pré’s wonderfully subjective approach to the work and they work hand-in-glove, which brings a rarely heard expressive unity to the performance. The orchestral playing is good, but the BBC SO were hardly the Concertgebouw and much of the woodwind playing is provincial, the string tone – even allowing for the sound – thin.
At first sight the Sibelius looked far more interesting, because once Campoli left Decca – where his LPs and especially the stereo ones are highly collectible – his career petered out and the chance to hear him live in the one of the great concerti with one of the great Sibelians was enticing. Unfortunately expectation and reality don’t coincide. In terms of his playing style he epitomised the seemingly effortless production of an unbroken, exquisitely moulded bel canto line, and therein lies the problem. Seemingly in a desire for purity of expression, the intensity of expression within fluid tempi so many others find is missing.
At the start of the first movement the tempo is slow – Ida Haendel (Warner) was no race horse here, but she is half a minute faster – and remains monotonously so, including the coda. Yes the cadenza is poised, clean and free of exaggeration, but there is no real intensity of expression. The slow movement is better, the tempo leisurely, the tone beautiful, but again Campoli seemingly doesn’t feel the music, especially when compared to Salvatore Accardo with Colin Davis (Philips), who are magisterially soulful. Campoli is rhythmically alert at the start of the finale and the tempo is fairly average, but after the first orchestral tutti the leaps are deadpan and there is no real excitement, although this is the best of the movements. Barbirolli and The Hallé on the other hand are playing a different work. Unlike so many conductors, who would have just ignored the soloist and gone their own way, Barbirolli follows Campoli’s lead and phrasing, but he invests the forte passages with trenchant power, the bleak, weighty, grey-toned strings bite, despite the congested sound, the brass and timpani cut-through and whenever possible Barbirolli moves inexorably forward with swagger and conviction.
Watching Campoli everything looks effortless, but he also looks as he sounds; uninvolved. As on other early films featuring string soloists Campoli is stood on a podium, but more unusually, looking left rather than at the audience. The black and white picture quality is reasonably sharp and the audience neither look nor sound enthusiastic at the end.
Moving to the sound. In Moscow the internal balance, as was the norm in those days, favours the soloist, while the orchestra is more recessed. The woodwind solos are clearly audible, but they tend to disappear in climaxes and while Barbirolli liked prominent timpani, they lack definition as do the brass and both are often inaudible. Fortunately the string tone, including du Pré’s, is reasonably full if a little pinched in the treble. One minute into the slow movement what sounds like an old-fashioned electronic phone can be heard briefly, but I am assuming this was some kind of interference. With regard to the timings the booklet shows the finale as 12.22, when it is 12.33, although Robert Matthew-Walker’s programme notes are excellent.
The Sibelius, which derives from the Campoli Collection, was broadcast in March 1965 and according to the booklet the first movement lasts 17.08, but there is a substantial drop in pitch a minute in that affects over half the movement and the rest plays at A=443, as opposed to 440, which The Hallé tunes to and given that pitch correction software has been available for over 10 years you do wonder how this still happens. Nevertheless, there is virtually no slurring, the overall balance on the CD is recessed, but on the black and white DVD the visual element brings it forward and unusually for that time Campoli isn’t too dominant, although his tone lacks lustre, the orchestral sound is full, if congested, although you can hear the brass and timpani in climaxes.