Six of the best… cellists

From Pablo Casals to Jacqueline du Pré, Helen Wallace explores the iconic cellists and recordings of the 20th century

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Pablo Casals (1876-1973)

Pablo Casals revolutionised the cello as a solo instrument.

In Fritz Kreisler’s words, ‘the greatest musician ever to draw bow’, he played for Queen Victoria at 22 and the American president John F Kennedy in his eighties.

His most significant legacy, aside from the cellists he inspired, was the rediscovery of the Solo Suites of JS Bach, previously dismissed as technical exercises. Casals was driven by passionate political and moral convictions, which led to his voluntary exile from his beloved Catalonia from the Spanish Civil War until the end of his life.

For 30 years he effectively silenced his instrument in protest against the West’s complicity in Facism. In the 1949 founded a festival in Prades where many legendary recordings were made.

Recommended disc: JS Bach: Solo Suites
Pablo Casals (cello)
EMI 965 9212

 

Emanuel Feuermann (1902-1942)

A cellist of spectacular virtuosity and artistry, whose technical agility in the high registers led him to be named the ‘Wienawski of the cello’, and of whom Toscanini said ‘there is no one after him.’

Taught by Julius Klengel, he was an influential teacher at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik until he was dismissed by the Nazis in 1933 for being a Jew. Feuermann settled in America in 1937 and was immediately recognised as an outstanding soloist, and formed a fruitful partnership with violinist Jascha Heifetz and pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Their plans to record the complete piano trio repertoire were cut short by his early death from an infection after a minor operation.

Recommended disc: Dvořák: Cello Concerto
Emanuel Feuermann (cello); Berlin State Opera Orchestra/MichaelTaube

Pearl GemmCD9077

Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)

Born in Russia, Piatigorsky trained at the Moscow Conservatory and was principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler. When Richard Strauss heard him perform, he said, ‘I have finally heard my Don Quixote as I thought him to be.’

He made his American debut to great acclaim in 1929 and remained, achieving a rare celebrity, through his brilliance, droll character and his association with Heifetz (he eventually stepped in as the violinist’s cellist of choice several years after Feuermann died, and they recorded extensively together).

A virile performer, there was always a powerful core to his sound. William Walton dedicated his Cello Concerto to him.

Recommended disc: Walton: Cello Concerto
Gregor Piatigorsky (cello); Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
RCA 74321 925752

Pierre Fournier (1906-1986)

A player of Apollonian calm and control, Fournier overcame childhood polio to enjoy a glittering career for over half a century.

His style was nobly elegant and refined where Rostropovich’s was muscular and extrovert. He formed a highly successful trio with violinist

Henryk Szeryng and pianist Wilhelm Kempff, who excelled in Beethoven, and his vast recorded output has stood the test of time. His reputation was damaged during the Second World War when he agreed to perform in occupied Paris.

Recommended disc: Schumann: Cello Concerto
Pierre Fournier (cello); Philharmonia/Malcolm Sargent

EMI 629 5392

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007)

Rostropovich will always be remembered as the inspiration for the great cello masterworks in the second half of the 20th century. Close friendships with Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Britten gave rise to the former’s two striking Cello Concertos, Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante (click play on the audio player below to hear a clip) and Sonata, Britten’s stormy Cello Symphony and the deeply personal three Solo Suites.

‘Slava’s’ legacy is astonishing: he premiered nearly 200 works in his lifetime, many commissioned by or written for him, and raised the cellistic bar with his powerful, virtuosic technique.

Recommended disc: Shostakovich: Cello Concertos
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello); Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
EMI 562 8282 

 

Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987)

An iconic cellist for the British, du Pré inspired a generation with her dazzling performances, until her career was cruelly cut short by multiple sclerosis when she was in her late twenties.

Her heart-on-sleeve recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto achieved legendary status, and epitomised the rapturously expressive nature of her playing style.

We have Christopher Nupen to thank for capturing her spirited, humorous character on film playing the great chamber works of Schubert and Beethoven with pianist Daniel Barenboim, violinists Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and, then on the double bass, Zubin Mehta.

Recommended disc: Elgar: Cello Concerto
Jacqueline Du Pré (cello); London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli

EMI 965 9322 

 

 

Helen Wallace

Related links:
CD Review: Mstislav ostropovich performs Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto
CD Review: Pierre Fournier performs Beethoven Cello Sonatas with Wilhelm Kempff
CD Review: Collection: Great Moments in Cello Playing