Mission Accomplished: Du Pré’s Elgar

July 15, 2023 0 By JohnValbyNation

The stars lined up.


According to biographer Charles Reid, the British conductor Sir John Barbirolli “burned with Elgarian zeal,” attributable in part to Barbirolli’s participation, as a young cellist in the London Symphony Orchestra of 1919, in the premiere performance of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto. That performance, conducted by the composer and with Felix Salmond as soloist, was a disaster—Elgar’s rehearsal time had been cut short by a lack of cooperation from another conductor on the bill, a slight the composer never forgave—yet from then on, the 19-year-old Barbirolli regarded Elgar’s music with reverence.


Forty-three years later, another teenaged cellist—Jacqueline du Pré, who only the year before had made her formal debut at London’s Wigmore Hall—made her concerto debut playing the Elgar under Malcolm Sargent, another Elgarian. That and subsequent Du Pré performances of the work were well received, but it wasn’t until August 1965, when she recorded the concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra under Barbirolli’s direction, that Du Pré became forever linked with Elgar’s elegiac masterpiece (footnote 1). Perhaps because Barbirolli remained, at heart, a cellist—even when demonstrating points of technique for the violinists under his baton, he would play that instrument by holding it upright in his lap, bowing it like a cello—he was uniquely able to draw the most from the gifted Du Pré.


Their historically great recording was made in a no-less-historically-great recording space: London’s Kingsway Hall, built in 1912 as a Methodist Church hall—in essence, a mission. G.B. Shaw and G.K. Chesterton debated there. Elgar recorded his Nursery Suite there in the presence of King George VI and Princess Elizabeth. Churchill spoke there. John Culshaw was remembered there. Kingsway Hall was so perfect-sounding a room that HMV/EMI continued recording music there even after they’d built Abbey Road Studios.


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It would be remarkable had the LP that resulted from those 1965 sessions, on which the Cello Concerto was coupled with Elgar’s song cycle Sea Pictures, with Dame Janet Baker as soloist (EMI ASD 655), not been an artistic triumph. Fortunately for all concerned, it endures as the Elgar recording against which all others are measured—the record of record—and, in one format or another, has remained in print ever since. In that time it has seldom been difficult to find on LP, whether an original pressing of whatever vintage—my own copy of ASD 655, purchased in London, is probably from the 1980s—or one of at least two different reissues. The trouble is, until recently, I’d never thought that LP’s sound quality ranked among EMI’s very best: It’s held back by a few “hot”-sounding peaks, of a sort that led me to assume that the tape recorder itself had been overdriven.


My point of view has been changed by the most recent reissue of ASD 655, from the Electric Recording Company. I first wrote about this London-based company in my “Listening” Column in the July 2013 issue, in which I described their lovingly restored all-tube mastering chain, their painstakingly reproduced, letterpress-printed sleeves, and their pledge to reissue LPs in editions limited to no more than 300 copies: practices and policies that keep their prices steep. Yet whereas all previous ERC reissues have been of rare LPs, originals of which sell for four and five figures, good UK originals of EMI ASD 655 can be had for $50 or so, and excellent ones for under $200.


ERC’s reissue, offered for £300, has dispatched every other reissue and original copy I’ve heard. Here, the recording’s many dynamic peaks are more stirring than ever, yet the sound is consistently clean and listenable. Not only that, but the size of the orchestra, and of Du Pré’s Davidov Stradivarius, have each increased a notch, and the sound is considerably more open, while offering no less color and natural texture. And the LP surfaces are astonishingly, perfectly silent.


I called Pete Hutchison, the Electric Recording Company’s founder and managing director, to ask what it had been like to work on this record. Hutchison sits in on every mastering session—for the Du Pré–Barbirolli Elgar, ERC engineer Chris Potter was at the controls—and he said that the original master tape was actually in very good shape. “The original recording is good,” he said, “and it was worth doing. But I think that record’s all about the emotion in the performance, isn’t it?”


Pressed for more technical observations, Hutchison described how his company took time off last year to do some work on their fabled Lyrec and Ortofon mastering gear, which engineer Sean Davies had spent nearly three years rebuilding: “Sean’s okay, but he’s knocking on 80, and that’s the trouble with bringing in such expertise—[now] we’ve had to teach ourselves.


“Since last summer we’ve made a few little changes that have helped a bit. Also, one of the things you find when you listen to records, everything can sound [otherwise] all right, but things get a little shouty in the louder passages. We’ve been experimenting a little with amplitude, and now we’re bringing things down a dB or two.”


When I asked if reissuing a comparatively easy-to-find record marks a change in direction for his company, Hutchison said that ERC’s mission remains as it was: “Historically, we’ve done rarer records, but because the Du Pré is such an important recording, we had to do it. This is not a change in direction—although we might do [something like this] again—but everything on our label is down to personal decisions, personal tastes.”


Such motivations are behind the titles Hutchison chose for ERC’s next releases, which include The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker (Riverside) and an LP boxed set, with book, of Beethoven’s symphonies and other works, by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (UK Columbia). The latter will be ERC’s first reissue to include bonus tracks: The original, which supplemented the nine symphonies with some of Beethoven’s overtures, spanned nine LPs; ERC’s edition will contain all of the overtures and bring the count to 13 discs. Hutchison hopes to have the box ready to ship by the end of the year: “I’ve spent the last four weeks listening to nothing but Beethoven—and loving it.”




Footnote 1: This recording was one of John Atkinson’s “Records to Die For” in 2013 and one of the late Peter W. Mitchell’s in 1991.—Ed.

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