Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The cello hurricane

Photo: from ClassicFM.com
Watching the sky turn to lurid mustard yesterday as I made my way home from the Women of the Year Lunch, I couldn't help remembering what happened 30 years ago, the night of the now legendary 1987 storm (which would probably be dubbed "Hurricane Higgins" or suchlike now).

15 October was my father's birthday and to celebrate we all went to the Barbican to hear Simon Rattle conduct the Strauss Four Last Songs, sung by Maria Ewing. Coming home - in those days it was not unreasonable to take the car to the Barbican - we fought through the driving rain, rising wind and fearsome traffic jams.

I woke around 5am to a noise like a jet engine revving up and the house shuddering under us; outside, clouds were scudding at double pace across a tobacco-coloured sky. In the morning everyone in the street was outside staring up at their roofs, asking each other whether for insurance purposes this counted as an Act of God. (That was the only time I ever saw our next-door neighbours actually speak to my parents.) That day I was due to go back to Cambridge to begin a last-minute  one-year postgrad course, but trains and roads alike were impassable.

Solution: go a few days later instead. After unpacking, I went off to look for a violinist friend in another college. I found him in the junior common room, alone in front of the TV, sitting absolutely motionless. The room was filled with Elgar and on the screen was Jacqueline du Pré. That moment, I knew she was dead.

I think the image of Jacqueline du Pré found its way to a special place in all our hearts, something that's unique for each of us. For me, she virtually conflated, very early on, with my older sister, who as a teenager had amazing pre-Raphaelite golden-brown hair and played the cello. As horrific irony would have it, she, too, died young, at 45 (of ovarian cancer). Moreover, though I never set eyes on du Pré except on the TV, she was never far away. She and Barenboim lived in Pilgrim's Lane, about 15 mins walk from our place, and the house where the pair first met and played chamber music was the very house where in the late '70s-early '80s I used to go for my piano lessons every weekend. And Christopher Nupen's beautiful films of her, which helped to seal her status as musical icon, were somehow embedded in my psyche as an example of all the fun, warmth and glory that music-making could be. (Here's a piece I wrote about her for The Independent in January 05.)

To mark this 30th anniversary of her death, Nupen has created a new tribute to her, an hour-long documentary called Jacqueline du Pré: A Gift Beyond Words, which will be on BBC4 on Sunday. I asked him to tell us a little about the process and what du Pré means to him all these years on.

JD: What is different about this film from your previous versions?

CN: The difference between this film and the five which we made with her during her lifetime, is that this one is neither a portrait film, nor a performance film.  Instead, it is a tribute to mark the 30th anniversary of Jackie’s death and a reflection on her enduring legacy.

All the material of Jackie herself has been seen before but it is seen here in a different context —  and 30 years later.  Both of those things make a difference to what comes off the screen from the same footage.

JD: What qualities about Jackie stand out most in your memory?

CN: Her most distinguishing quality is her incorruptible honesty, both in her life and in her music: total, clear, unassuming, unmistakable.  Those who knew her best describe different aspects of it in the film.  Daniel Barenboim calls her an unequalled musical conversationalist. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in smiling recollection, calls it an unequalled directness.  Pinchas Zukerman, who made breathtaking music with her, calls it pure genius, a word that one can seldom use of performers. Vladimir Ashkenazy uses the same big word and Zubin Mehta calls it pure instinct.

JD: Any favourite memory you would pick out?

CN: These exceptional characteristics are what made her inimitable and so memorable. She was also gifted with a capacity to surprise us which accompanied her like her shadow. I remember her reaction to our film of The Ghost Trio when she saw it for the first time.  I thought we had failed to bring it up to the level which the Trio had achieved at a concert in Oxford and I said so before the screening started.  As soon as it ended, with no pause at all — and no politesse, Jackie announced, flatly, “You are wrong.  On the film one can see what’s going on and it adds another dimension to the music.” I learned one of the most important lessons of my career from that moment.

JD: Has your perspective on her changed over time?

CN: The magics that she made in the sounds that she drew from her cello have not changed at all with the years.  Age does not weary them.  On the other hand much has changed in the perceptions of the world at large.

There are very few performing musicians in the entire history of Western music whose reputations have risen steadily from the time of their deaths but Jacqueline du Pré is one of those precious few.

In a recent survey by Belgian Television in connection with the Queen Elisabeth of the Belgian’s Cello Competition, Jackie was voted one of the three greatest cellists of all time. The Belgian cellists voted for Mstislav Rostropovich, Jacqueline du  Pré and Pablo Casals – in that order. That would not have happened during her lifetime because the world is slow to acknowledge greatness and Jackie died too young.

JD: What do you think young musicians could learn from Jackie today?

CN: I suggest listening  to her playing with an open mind and a generous heart.  Then listen to what Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the others say about her honesty and her directness— not to imitate but to help find their own individual voice.

Christopher Nupen's Jacqueline du Pré: A Gift Beyond Words is on BBC4 on Sunday 22 October at 8pm, then on the iPlayer for a month afterwards

Please consider supporting JDCMB with a donation to its Year of Development fundraising page at GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb