Best cello music: are these the 10 greatest cello pieces ever?
Ten of our favourite pieces of classical music for the cello
The cello is a gorgeous stringed instrument, its rich, low tone ideally suited to some of classical music's most soulful pieces. Here is our pick of some of the best works written for cello.
Best cello music
Elgar: Cello Concerto, Adagio
Elgar’s Cello Concerto is one of the most famous works in the cello repertoire and one of the best cello concertos of all time. It was one of Elgar’s later works, composed in 1919, after having agreed many years before that he would write such a concerto.
Jacqueline du Pré’s elegiac rendition of this movement remains the most notable recording of the work to date. Recorded in 1965, du Pré’s interpretation was so popular that her teacher Mstislav Rostropovich removed the work from his own repertoire. Elgar’s use of rich, evocative melodies and minimal orchestral backing generates a sense of melancholy that lasts throughout the movement.
We named Jacqueline du Pré one of the greatest cellists of all time
Elgar Cello Concerto: Recommended recording
Saint-Saëns: ‘The Swan’ from Carnival of the Animals
A highlight of Saint-Saëns’s compositional output, The Carnival of the Animals is a suite made up of 14 short movements, each representing a different animal. It received its premiere performance at private concert in 1886, but Saint-Saëns specified that the work should be published posthumously, so the first public performance wasn’t given until 1922.
This penultimate movement is particularly well known, having now become a staple of the cello repertoire. This dreamlike work carries the cello through interwoven major and minor phrases backed by recurring broken chords on the piano.
Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals: Recommended recording
Güher & Süher Pekinel (piano), Radio France PO/Marek Janowski (1990)
Warner Apex 25646 21252
Schubert: Sonata in A Minor for Arpeggione and Piano (transcribed for cello)
This sonata from Schubert is a challenge for cellists as its melody is transcribed from a part initially written for the six-string Arpeggione – a bowed guitar which fell out of use soon after its invention due to its lack of a distinct orchestral role.
However, those who master the piece provide an exquisite listening experience as they guide the audience through a map of gentle yet demandingly technical phrases interspersed with indulgent, sustained notes which dominate the Adagio movement.
Schubert 'Arpeggione' Sonata: Recommended recording
Bach: Cello Suite No. 1, Prelude
No list of top cello works would be complete without Bach’s First Cello Suite. As a solo piece of average difficulty, this work provides an ideal platform for intermediate-level cellists to grapple with one of the greats, if not the great, in timeless cello music.
Bach Cello Suite No. 1: Recommended recording
Debussy: Cello Sonata
Debussy had planned to compose a set of six sonatas for various instruments, but by the time of his death only three were completed: one for flute, viola and harp, one for violin and piano, and this one for cello and piano. He'd done very well though, as these three are all gripping, beautiful works, the cello sonata perhaps most of all.
The opening movement is dramatic, urgent in places, and has the cello at times prowling restlessly around its lower register, before bursting into a moment of release higher up.
The middle movement (Sérénade) has some thrilling Spanish sonorities – as the cello is plucked and teased we find ourselves sheltering from the midday sun in some sultry Andalusian square. The Finale, meanwhile, is all nervous energy, with that tumbling then rising melody, by turns wistful and joyous. Très bien (or should we say ‘muy bien’), Claude!
Debussy Cello Sonata: Recommended recording
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Benjamin Britten (piano)
Decca Legends 4758239
Tchaikovsky: Rococo Variations
Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme was the nearest the composer came to a cello concerto. This elegant piece lays out Tchaikovsky’s love of both Baroque music and the serene melodies of Mozart.
Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations: Recommended recording
Jan Vogler (cello), Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Andrés Orozco-Estrada
Sony Classical 88875114292
Brahms: Cello Sonata No. 1
Brahms wrote two cello sonatas and both are beautiful things. If pushed, we'll choose the first, with its fascinatingly changeable moods (haunting, romantic, strident) and its rich cello sonorities. Then, too, there's the piano part, which achieves almost symphonic complexity and grandeur at moments.
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But honestly, both sonatas are wonderful (no. 2 is slightly more mercurial), and both are typically programmed together on CD - so why not get to know them both?
Brahms Cello Sonata No.1: Recommended recording
Rachmaninov: Cello Sonata
Rachmaninov, that master of the grand pianistic gesture and the sweeping symphonic utterance, isn't well known for his chamber music. And indeed, he didn't compose much for these forces. His Cello Sonata, though, is one of the most beautiful and arresting works written for cello and piano.
The cello has a gorgeuosly yearning theme in the first movement. After that, as we should exoect from one of the greatest pianists of all time, the piano dominates somewhat - apart from in the mournful Andante, one of Rachmaninov's crowning achievements.
Rachmaninov Cello Sonata: Recommended recording
From our review: '[Cellist Bruno] Philippe steadfastly resists the temptation to indulge in too much tempo fluctuation even at moments of greatest intensity. In fact, by adopting this strategy he not only enhances the music’s requisite emotional warmth, but also strengthens the structural coherence of the outer movements.
'Ducros proves to be a superbly responsive partner, delivering a suitably pungent timbre in the exciting Scherzo and bringing exceptional depth of tone to the full-blooded piano writing in the central section of the Finale.'
Which lesser known composers composed great works for cello?
Bruch: Kol Nidrei
This remarkable 12-minute work for orchestra and cello has religious connotations: the melody is devised to imitate the voice of a Jewish cantor (hence the title, which translates as ‘All Vows’). The piece also draws on a poem by Lord Byron, ‘Those that Wept on Babel’s stream’ from his collection Hebrew Melodies.
Interestingly, Bruch was in fact a Protestant Christian – this work was inspired by his many Jewish friends. Du Pré’s second appearance on this list is a testament to her lasting impression on audiences worldwide.
Bruch Kol Nidrei: Recommended recording:
Kodály: Sonata for Solo Cello, 1st movement
With its erratic melody and daring octave leaps, this is undoubtedly the most energetic work on this list. However, this does not take away from the emotional legitimacy of the piece: the vigorous, animated phrases are interrupted by sumptuously deep chords which ground the work in a sense of dramatic grief.
The theatricality of this piece is embedded by the lack of accompaniment, making the solo cello all the more striking.
Kodály Cello Sonata: Recommended recording
Listen to our playlist of the best cello works here:
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.