Herewith a couple of notes on recordings and performances by two famous cellists, Du Pré and Ma, living and dead.
I should note that I myself am an occasional cellist. I have quite a bit of confidence in my musical education and taste, and thus I can say with confidence that as a performer, I have a profound lack of native talent, aggravated by unwillingness to take time to practice; I ceased taking lessons recently because the Sun job had further weakened my motivation and there’s no point taking lessons if you don’t practice. So when it comes to cello music I’m a damn educated listener.
Jacqueline · So anyhow, on my last trip to the valley, I was channel-scanning at bedtime and ran across a grainy black-and-white video of Jacqueline Du Pré playing the first movement of the Elgar concerto. By way of background, I should say that more than one sober music critic has opined that Du Pré’s take-no-prisoners performances of the Elgar may well constitute the finest recorded musical solo instrumental performance of any music, anytime, anywhere.
You can get her landmark recording, with her fiancée Daniel Barenboim conducting, on any number of different CDs, and I can’t imagine not owning it. Aside from the fact that it’s one lovely tune after another, the remarkable combination of Elgar’s clever writing, Du Pré’s explosive tone, and some very clever conducting create a remarkable illusion that on a few occasions, she’s playing louder than the rest of the orchestra put together; it’s something to hear.
And that video is something to see. I never caught her live (she died of MS in 1987 after some years of illness), but this clip makes it obvious why she was such a big draw. She totally commands the stage, presenting as a Maenad helpless in the grip of the music; some of the facial expressions are just this side of this frightening. How can arms so slender have produced that avalanche of sound?
Anyhow, I poked around here and there but can’t find that video online, even on Amazon; has anyone ever seen it for sale?
Yo-Yo · I am not particularly a Yo-Yo Ma fan. I was a subscriber to the Toronto Symphony for a while a few decades ago when he was just establishing himself as a mega-star, and his performances left me cold. His technique is completely above and beyond anyone else living, and the tone is almost unnaturally beautiful. Maybe too beautiful, because I always had the feeling that he was skimming effortlessly over the surface of the music, free of friction or penetration. Plus, he gets the dorkiest expressions on his face when he plays.
Plus, his version of the Bach unaccompanied suites is not in the top five or even the top ten, and that’s the gold standard for cellists.
I respected what he was doing with his Silk Road and Brazil projects but bad luck kept me from making any of those concerts. Anyhow, I was driving somewhere recently and on the radio somebody was playing some of the Vivaldi cello chestnuts with grace and lots of pep and this remarkably tasty tone, almost no vibrato but too much power for a baroque cello. Anyhow, that turned out to be Yo-Yo’s latest; I bought it in San Francisco last week and it’s a fine piece of work.
It’s kind of ludicrous to say that Vivaldi doesn’t get enough respect, given that The Four Seasons is (last time I checked) the best-selling piece of classical music ever, but a lot of his material is more than just pretty, and Yo-Yo’s latest is just an extremely tasty hour of very good music.