Car journey - Elgar Cello Concerto

Edward Elgar

Edward Elgar

I mentioned in a blog a few months ago that I used to be a cellist, albeit a very bad one.  It is an extremely difficult instrument to play and I had no empathy for it at all.  One of the worst car journeys I ever had was being driven by a great girlfriend from London to home in Scotland with my newly bought cello.  Due to all our clobber the instrument (in a huge case) and I had to share the front seat, the heating was stuck on max and the cat that was also sharing the journey had diarrhoea.  The final straw was that somehow we managed to end up in the middle of Leeds at which point our relationship nearly came to an end.

Jacqueline du Pre

Jacqueline du Pre

The Cello Concerto in E minor by Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is one of the most romantic, passionate, soulful and spine tingling pieces of music ever written.  Composed at the end of the First World War when the trauma and social change that followed perplexed and embittered Elgar, and for a period his work went into decline.  However in 1918 Elgar, now a 60 year old man went into hospital to have his tonsils removed, there he woke up one morning and asked his daughter for a pencil where upon he wrote down the opening theme of the cello concerto.  In the weeks to follow Elgar did nothing with the theme until a few months later they went to live in Sussex and there he returned to composing with an intensity he had not known for years.  He finished the work in the summer of 1919.  During his final illness in 1933, Elgar hummed the concerto's first theme to a friend and said "If ever I'm dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don't be alarmed.  It's only me."

Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim

The iconic recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto is considered to be by Jacqueline du Pre with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbarolli.  Du Pre was considered to be one of the greatest cellists of her generation.  Aged 24 she married Daniel Barenboim, the 24 year old Israeli conductor and pianist, who frequently conducted her performing this work.  Sadly aged 28 Jackie was diagnosed with MS and shortly afterwards playing the cello became impossible so she gave up but continued to give masterclasses from her wheelchair, eventually dying aged 42.

Alisa Weilerstein

Alisa Weilerstein

However, time has moved on and I think that the recording of this work by the American cellist Alisa Weilerstein is phenomenal.  This was her first recording for the Decca record label and interestingly is conducted by Daniel Barenboim with the Staatskapelle Berlin.  For many this was considered to be the recording of 2013.  Weilerstein discovered the cello aged two and a half and gave her first public performance aged 4.  Recently the Los Angeles Times said "She and the cello seem simply to be one and the same".  As you can see from the Youtube clip below her passion and intensity needed for this work is conveyed with every note she plays.

On the recording the Elgar is coupled with the Elliott Carter Cello Concerto.  I think that the latter work is more fun to play than listen to unless you particularly like more modern sounding classical music  You can download just the Elgar which I recommend you do unless you feel like being particularly brave.

Watch Alisa Weilerstein play the first movement of the Elgar Cello Concerto on Youtube   
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Posted on May 21, 2014 .