20 best cellists of all time
From Pablo Casals to Jacqueline du Pré, we celebrate some of the greatest cellists of the past 300 years
It's the larger cousin of the high-flying violin - yet equally charismatic. In the hands of wonderful players, the cello's rich, sonorous depths can thrill and move in equal measure, capturing the range of human emotions from joyful exuberance to deepest melancholy.
These 20 musicians from the last 300 years represent the pinnacle of fine cello playing – all utterly in command from a technical perspective, of course, but more importantly, able to capture and hold the attention of audiences with their consummate artistry. Scroll on and prepare to be captivated...
Best cellists of all time
Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805)
The Italian composer, best known for the Minuet from his String Quintet, Op. 11 No. 5, was in fact a highly gifted cellist who studied with his father Leopoldo Boccherini, a cellist and double-bass player, from the age of five. Following further studies in Rome, he and his father were court musicians in Vienna and thereafter Luigi was a court musician in Spain. Later patrons included King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia.
A true virtuoso, Boccherini often played violin repertoire on the cello at pitch. He wrote a large amount of chamber music, including over one hundred string quintets for two violins, viola and two cellos, nearly a hundred string quartets, and numerous string trios and sonatas. His orchestral music includes around 30 symphonies and twelve cello concertos, including the Concerto in B flat, which remains popular to this day.
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David Popper (1843-1913)
The Czech musician was one of the greatest cellists of his day, and composed some of the most fiendishly difficult works for his instrument. His virtuoso career encompassed high profile tours, premieres and appointments, among them at the court of Prince von Hohenzollern-Hechingen in Löwenberg and as principal cellist of the Hofoper in Vienna.
Among his cello compositions are four concertos, a Requiem for three cellos and orchestra and a number of shorter works, written to highlight the cello’s unique sound and range. His High School of Cello Playing, Op. 73, a book of cello études, is widely used by advanced cello students today.
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.
Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965)
The British cellist gave first performances of several important works by Frederick Delius, and made the first recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in 1920 with the composer conducting.
Hailing from a musical family, she studied at the Royal College of Music in London, and under Hugo Becker in Berlin. Her performances became well known through early BBC broadcasts – and she made one of the BBC's earliest live outside broadcasts in May 1924 in the garden of her house at Oxted, duetting with nightingales.
Sir Henry Wood, Edward Elgar and Charles Villers Stanford were all great admirers of her playing, the former two conducting many concerts in which she featured as soloist, and the latter dedicating his Ballata and Ballabile, Op. 160 to her.
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.
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.
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.
Paul Tortelier (1914-90)
The French cellist and composer toured the world following the Second World War as a high-profile soloist, taught at conservatoires in France, Germany and China, and gave televised masterclasses in the UK. Prior to the war her performed as an orchestral cellist in the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
He was particularly associated with Richard Strauss's Don Quixote, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Bach's Cello Suites. A Romantic player, he had an excellent left-hand technique and a subtle, accurate bow arm. His tone was fairly narrow and concentrated, yet he could also play with considerable warmth.
János Starker (1924-2013)
The Hungarian-American cellist was a child prodigy who made his first public appearances at ages six and seven. As a student at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music from the age of eleven, he was influenced by composers Leo Weiner, Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók and Ernő Dohnányi, all of whom were members of the faculty.
Starker was principal cellist of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and as a soloist made more than 150 recordings, including five recordings of the Bach Cello Suites.
From 1958 until his death, he taught at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he held the title of distinguished professor.
As a player he was known for his virtuosity, his smooth, focused tone, and his dislike of wide, Romantic vibrato.
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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 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.
Natalia Gutman (1942-)
Multi-prize winning Gutman took up the cello aged five, studying first with her stepfather and subsequently her grandfather, before receiving lessons from Rostropovich at the Moscow Conservatory.
She has performed with the world’s leading orchestras under conductors including Serge Celibidache, Claudio Abbado, Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Muti, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Gustavo Dudamel, has recorded extensively, and is dedicated to promoting 20th-century and contemporary repertoire.
A committed chamber musician, she formed a trio with her husband, the violinist Oleg Kagan and pianist Sviatoslav Richter – and also performed in a longstanding duo with Kagan, and in quartets and quintets with Yuri Bashmet and Viktor Tretiakov.
As a player she is known for her robust tone and magnetic style.
Lynn Harrell (1944-2020)
Born to musician parents, the American cellist studied at Juilliard with Leonard Rose and subsequently at the Curtis Institute with Orlando Cole before embarking on an international career spanning nearly six decades as a recitalist, chamber musician, and soloist with major orchestras.
He was the winner of the inaugural Avery Fisher Prize and two Grammy Awards, and taught at the University of Cincinnati, Royal Academy of Music, Cleveland Institute of Music, Juilliard School, USC Thornton School of Music, and the Shepherd School of Music.
As a player he was known for his beautiful, penetrating tone and for the richness of his sound.
Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987)
An iconic cellist for the British, Jacqueline 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.
Mischa Maisky (1948-)
Latvian musician Maisky is the only cellist in the world to have studied with both Rostropovich and Piatigorsky.
He has worked with numerous high-profile artists, including pianists Martha Argerich and Evgeny Kissin, violinists Gidon Kremer, Itzhak Perlman and Maxim Vengerov, and conductors Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim and Gustavo Dudamel. He has also made multiple recordings – in 2021, DG released a box set of 44 CDs representing his complete recordings for the Yellow Label.
A flamboyant personality, his playing can range from turbo-charged intensity to exquisite delicacy.
Heinrich Schiff (1951-2016)
The Austrian cellist and conductor was born to composer parents and made his solo debuts in Vienna and London in 1971.
His recordings of the Bach Cello Suites, Shostakovich Cello Concertos and the Brahms Double Concerto with violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann won multiple prizes, and among his students were leading performers Gautier Capuçon, Truls Mørk, Christian Poltéra and Natalie Clein.
He was known as a versatile artist whose musicianship was characterised by an historically informed approach. But after suffering a stroke in 2008, he gave up performing.
As a conductor, he was artistic director of the Northern Sinfonia (1990-96), and chief conductor of the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra (1996–2000) and Vienna Chamber Orchestra (2005-8).
Yo-Yo Ma (1955-)
The American cellist was born in Paris to musical Chinese parents – his mother was a singer, and his father was a composer and violinist. A child prodigy, Ma began giving public concerts at the age of five, and performed for presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy at the age of seven. High-profile television appearances followed, cementing his relationship with such leading musical figures as Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern.
A graduate of the Juilliard School and Harvard University, he has received 19 Grammy Awards and recorded more than 90 albums in repertoire ranging from core classical to American bluegrass, traditional Chinese melodies, Argentine tango and Brazilian music. Through his own Silk Road Ensemble, he has connected musicians from a diverse range of backgrounds.
As a player Ma is known for his smooth, lyrical tone, and technical facility.
Steven Isserlis (1958-)
Born into a multigenerational musical family, British cellist Steven Isserlis is an acclaimed soloist, chamber musician, educator, broadcaster and author of musical texts for both adults and children. He frequently appears with the world’s leading ensembles, and has also published several editions and arrangements of core repertoire, primarily for Faber Music. As an educator, he is artistic director of the International Musicians Seminar, Prussia Cove in West Cornwall.
Committed to authentic performance, he is also a keen exponent of contemporary music and has premiered works by composers including John Tavener, Lowell Liebermann, Carl Vine, David Matthews, John Woolrich, Wolfgang Rihm, Mikhail Pletnev and Thomas Adès.
He is known for his scholarly musicianship, technical mastery, command of phrasing and use of distinctive gut strings.
Sol Gabetta (1981-)
The Argentine cellist began her cello studies at the age of four. She won her first competition at the age of ten and has won multiple prizes and accolades in subsequent years.
She has performed with the world’s leading orchestras under the most celebrated conductors, and has premiered works by composers including Michel van der Aa and Pēteris Vasks. Among her frequent collaborators are the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, with whom she has made several recordings.
A highly individual performer, she is celebrated for her pure, vibrant sound, mastery of timbres and highly communicative performing style.
Gautier Capuçon (1981-)
Brother to violinist Renaud Capuçon, French cellist Gautier began his studies at the age of five and later was a student of Heinrich Schiff in Vienna.
Performing internationally with many of the world's foremost conductors and instrumentalists, he is also founder and leader of the 'Classe d'Excellence de Violoncelle' at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Recording exclusively for Erato (Warner Classics), Capuçon has won multiple awards and boasts an extensive discography.
He is acclaimed for his expressive musicianship and exuberant virtuosity.
Alisa Weilerstein (1982-)
The American cellist made her debut at age 13 with the Cleveland Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme. Hailing from a musical family, she continues to play piano trios with her parents as the Weilerstein Trio, resident at the New England Conservatory.
A graduate of Columbia University, she was awarded the Leonard Bernstein Prize at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in 2006, and in 2011 she received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.
A champion of contemporary music, Weilerstein has worked extensively with composers Osvaldo Golijov, Lera Auerbach and Joseph Hallman.
She is known for her profound musicality in interpretations of great emotion and sophistication.