More than one bravo for gifted late cellist Strauss: Du Pre's recording of 'Don Quixote' is a happy accident

Classical Sounds

Levine is masterful.

September 29, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Richard Strauss, "Don Quixote" and "Tod und Verklaerung" ("Death and Transfiguration"), performed by the MET Orchestra, James Levine conducting and (in "Don Quixote") cellist Jerry Grossman, violist Michael Ouzounian and violinist Raymond Gniewek (DG 447 762). Strauss, "Don Quixote," performed by cellist Jacqueline du Pre and the New Philharmonia Orchestra, Adrian Boult conducting; Edouard Lalo, Cello Concerto in D Minor, performed by du Pre and the Cleveland Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim conducting (EMI Classics 5 55528):

There are two ways to record Strauss' "Don Quixote." The first (and probably correct) method is to treat it as a tone poem, an orchestral tour de force directed by the conductor in which the cellist is merely the most important player in the drama. The second method, all but inescapable in today's classical music market, is to engage a superstar cellist and electronically magnify his part on the mixing console such that Strauss' musical narrative is transformed into a cello concerto.

The EMI recording represents the second method. In fact, this performance, which dates from 1968 and has never been released, would never have been issued were it not for du Pre's presence.

It is now easy to forget what a gigantic figure this young Englishwoman cut in the years between her New York debut in 1964 and her retirement nine years later, at the age of 28, because of the crippling effects of the multiple sclerosis that was to leave her almost completely paralyzed and without speech at the time of her death in 1987. Du Pre was an extravagantly gifted cellist with an enormous stage projection. She was not genuinely beautiful; but when she strode out on stage, with her huge, friendly grin, and sat down unself-consciously with her instrument between her long legs, she exuded an honest, open sensuality that personified the Zeitgeist of the 1960s. It didn't hurt that her playing was nothing less than magnificent, and its emotional fearlessness cast every other cellist -- including Mstislav Rostropovich -- into the shade. Du Pre was perhaps classical music's first female superstar instrumentalist -- the pioneer who paved the way for the pianist Martha Argerich and the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and for younger musicians such as Midori and Sarah Chang.

That this recording exists is an accident. As Andrew Keener notes in the accompanying jacket, du Pre was scheduled to record "Don Quixote" with Otto Klemperer in April 1968 and then perform it with him in London immediately afterward. But the octogenarian conductor, who liked du Pre but had never before performed with her, was apparently so offended by her stage demeanor, with its flying hair, writhing body and stamping feet, that Klemperer -- who, ironically enough, comported himself similarly on stage in his younger years -- quit the sessions, claiming illness, before the end of the second day. The recording plans were squelched, but the veteran conductor Sir Adrian Boult saved the public performance by using what would have been the last day of the recording sessions to rehearse the orchestra with du Pre.

Conductor, orchestra and soloist played through the piece once; Boult cried "Bravo!" and the members of the orchestra applauded. This single run-through -- in which one hears not only Boult's "bravo" and the orchestra's applause, but also pencils dropping and people talking -- was clearly never meant to be released as a recording. But someone -- no one is sure who -- had turned the microphones on, and so we have this remarkable performance.

It's impossible to recommend this disc if it is to be the only "Don Quixote" in one's collection -- it is far too personal and raw-sounding -- but anyone interested in the art of performance should hear it. I know of no other cellist, living or dead, and can not imagine one yet to be born, who realizes certain episodes -- such as the haunted landscape in the fifth variation's nightly vigil or the poignancy of Don Quixote's death -- with such unbelievable emotional force.

Levine's recording with the great orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera and its splendid principal cellist, Jerry Grossman, is actually a more successful performance -- in fact, it's among the best on records. The conductor's handling of orchestral detail is equaled by only a handful of other conductors -- none of them living -- and he shapes the musical narrative with a sense of humanity and dignity that, for many listeners, will recall the classic EMI account of Rudolf Kempe. Grossman's sensitive and polished playing may not be quite as characterful as Paul Tortelier's (with Kempe), but it fits superbly into Levine's framework. "Death and Transfiguration," in which Levine combines taut control with warm expressiveness, is a beautifully played filler.

Hear the music

To hear an excerpt from Jacqueline du Pre performing Strauss' "Don Quixote," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6195. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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