Having played the cello for more than thirty years, I am often asked what I would recommend for listeners, especially for those who aren’t necessarily concertgoers. As a cellist, it’s hard to categorize what to listen to. Some pieces are fun to play and to listen to, while others require such technical practice that they are just plain difficult. A cellist can be technically proficient and perform a masterpiece with nail-biting accuracy yet completely miss the nuance of creating beauty for his listeners.
The key is to find a recording where the performer moves past the difficulty, past having played it in practice hundreds of times, to the place of beauty. That alone, that shift, from work to beauty is more than noticeable. It is that which defines the moment music moves you the player and the listener as one.
Yes, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was a child prodigy with great talent as a pianist. His Paris conservatory education forced him to specialize in organ, since that was the expected occupation upon graduation. And he did play organ in Paris cathedrals for decades to much acclaim. It was his composition coursework, however, that led to his creative genius of later years.
This concerto is one of two he ever published for cello, crafting it for friend and instrument-maker Auguste Tolbecque in 1872. I can only imagine their conversations as Saint-Saëns composed, but I do know the thrill of playing it. Saint-Saëns wrote it as one continuous movement, and it remains required repertoire. Listen to soloist Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition, and for a special treat, you can watch the seven-year-old Ma play for President Kennedy in 1962.
German composer Max Bruch (1838-1920) often drew from other cultures for musical inspiration and derived this simplistic melody from the rhythm and prayer of evening services on Yom Kippur.
Young students learn this one easily, but it is not until the player is more mature that he is emotionally capable of emitting the sorrow and elegance of the piece. I may have learned it at age thirteen, but one of my favorite performers, Jacqueline du Pre, is able to bring emotive beauty to every single note (video below). Her playing career of a decade was cut short by multiple sclerosis but her recordings live on.
These six are my favorite to play. Designed to be unaccompanied by either piano or orchestra, most any filmgoer has heard their melodies. Composed in the 1720s, Johann Sebastian Bach modeled his suites after the earlier work of German composer Johann Jakob Froberger. Like Froberger’s, his are largely based on the Baroque court dances of France, especially the movements of the Allemande, Sarabande, Courante, and Gigue. The distinction is that Bach created them not as dance pieces, but as concert works for the cello, which had not been done before.
Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich brings such life to these pieces. His dynamic personality shines as he performs the first suite (video below). During his lifetime, more than 100 works were composed just for him as a performer by composers like Sergei Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten. Rostropovich’s passion and person are also captured in a documentary about how he changed the face of cello performance in the twentieth century—Rostropovich: The Genius of Cello.
Many know Elgar for his Pomp and Circumstance Marches but know little of their place in British history or the patriotic lyrics written for March No.1, “Land of Hope and Glory.”
Elgar’s cello concerto, however, expresses a deep and elegant sorrow derived from his own suffering. He finished the piece in 1919, when he was still recovering from a serious illness and from the destructive effects of World War I. Its London debut was a disaster, but British music critic Ernest Newman wrote that the concerto was “pregnant in its simplicity” and displayed a “profound wisdom and beauty.” Elgar’s distress and emotional turmoil is tangible in this piece, and it’s that raw emotion that makes it so exceptional. You can read more about his life and many works at the Edward Elgar Foundation website.
Once again, I recommend Jacqueline du Pre (video below) for her emotive finesse as she performs under her husband and conductor Daniel Barenboim.
Known for his New World Symphony, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) only composed two pieces for solo cello. As a trained violinist, he was known to exclaim that cellos were not capable of the same expression. But Czech cellist Hanuš Wihan insisted it was more than possible. The story goes that Dvorak attended a concert featuring Victor Herbert’s cello concerto and was immediately inspired to feature the instrument.
The Concerto in B minor stirs and rouses like no other. Its final movement is the most well-known, but its exquisite blend of soothing melody and bombosity is a technical masterpiece. Rostropovich (video below) lives and breathes his instrument and the music as he performs with the London Philharmonic in 1977.
Cello repertoire includes hundreds of notable and beautiful compositions, so these humble choices are but a start. For all things cello, whether histories or recordings or tutorials, the CelloBello website is a must. With the support of the New England Conservatory in Boston, it was designed less than a decade ago as a free online resource for all cellists and musicians.
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