About this Recording
8.111069 - PIATIGORSKY, Gregor: Concertos and Encores (1934-1950)
English 

Great Cellists: Gregor Piatigorsky
Schumann: Cello Concerto • Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1 • Encores

When, in 2004, a romantic novel was published based on the early life of Gregor Pavlovich Piatigorsky, lovers of the cello squirmed but were hardly surprised. A huge man in physical stature and musical personality, Piatigorsky told many tales that were even taller than he was, so that it has become impossible to sort out the truths from the myths. If even half the facts in the next paragraph of this note are true, his story was remarkable enough without needing to be embroidered. What can be said about him, without fear of contradiction, is that he was the outstanding representative of the Russian cello school in the generation before Rostropovich. His career, which lasted more than half a century, took him all round the world and won him the respect of his peers. He was also an excellent teacher and many of his pupils made good careers themselves. Sadly, he did not make as many recordings as one might have expected from a man of his reputation: cellists have always rated lower than violinists on the scale of record company priorities, and Piatigorsky had to cope with competition from Pablo Casals and Emanuel Feuermann, not to mention numerous others.

Born in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipropetrovsk), Ukraine, on 17th April 1903, he was taught violin and piano by his violist father, but in February 1910 he heard a concert by the Imperial Orchestra, featuring the young principal cellist Viktor Kubatsky (for whom Shostakovich later wrote his Cello Sonata). Smitten by the sight and sound of the cello, ‘Grisha’ spent hours in imaginary play, using two sticks to represent a cello and a bow. ‘Those magic sticks lifted me into a world of sound where I could call every mood at will,’ he wrote. Given a real cello for his seventh birthday, he made such rapid progress with local teachers that at nine he was playing in public with his elder brother Leonid, a violinist. Winning a scholarship to the Moscow Conservatory, where his teacher was Alfred von Glehn, a pupil of Davidov, he was thrown out at one time but then taken back; he also had private tuition from Anatoli Brandukov. Meanwhile he performed alongside his father Pavel in clubs and cinemas. He joined the Zimin Opera Orchestra, acted as supporting artist in Feodor Chaliapin’s recitals and in 1919, aged sixteen, won the competition to become principal of the Bolshoy Opera Orchestra. He played in the Lenin Quartet led by the Auer pupil Lev Zeitlin, gave trio concerts with Issay Dobrowen and Mischa Fishberg and gained experience from working with Konstantin Igumnov, Alexander Goldenweiser and Chaliapin, who told him: ‘You sing very nicely on your cello, Grisha, but try to speak more on it.’ With Elena Bekmann- Scherbina he gave the first Russian performance of Debussy’s Sonata and performed such pieces as Prokofiev’s Ballade and Goedike’s Improvisations. Glazunov liked the way Piatigorsky played his Chant du ménestrel and Spanish Serenade. Refused permission to study and give concerts abroad, in 1921 the cellist escaped to Poland, travelling most of the way in a cattle truck and crossing the border on foot with musician friends, his cello over his shoulder. ‘Suddenly bing-bang-bang! Two soldiers shoot at us,’ Piatigorsky told an interviewer years later. ‘There is with us a lady opera songer. She is very awfully fat. As she hears the bangs she jumps up on my shoulders and puts her big arms round my neck ... my cello is no more.’

In L’vov he found an instrument and worked where he could, then moved to Warsaw and started playing in a hotel. He had a few unhappy lessons from Hugo Becker in Berlin and in Leipzig studied with Julius Klengel, but learnt more from listening to rivals such as Feuermann. By late 1923 he was back in Berlin and was befriended by Schnabel, with whom he took part alongside Boris Kroyt in a performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire sung by Marie Gutheil- Schoder and conducted by Fritz Stiedry. In 1924 he was appointed principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic by Wilhelm Furtwängler, and he made his concerto début with the orchestra on 29th January 1925 in the Dvofiák Concerto, under Fritz Goldschmidt (in 1926 he repeated this work in Berlin under Furtwängler and in 1928 he played the Brahms Double Concerto, partnered by Carl Flesch). He played in a trio with the violinist Josef Wolfsthal and the pianist Leonid Kreutzer, made his Leipzig Gewandhaus début in 1928 (Haydn’s D major Concerto, with Furtwängler) and stayed with the Berlin Philharmonic until 1929, when he took his first trip to America. His début occurred in Oberlin, Ohio, but he also played with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski and gave three performances of the Dvofiák Concerto with the New York Philharmonic- Symphony under Mengelberg. Back in Berlin, he met Casals and linked up in a trio with Flesch and Carl Friedberg, and in 1930 Schnabel joined Flesch and Piatigorsky for a trio concert in Berlin and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto at the new Courtauld-Sargent Concerts in London. Another trio, with Nathan Milstein and Vladimir Horowitz, dated from the same year. In 1931 Piatigorsky met Artur Rubinstein, who thought him ‘certainly the best cellist I had heard since Casals’. A performance of Don Quixote in Frankfurt, under the composer’s baton, brought a written commendation from Strauss. In both Berlin and Frankfurt Joseph Szigeti and Piatigorsky presented a programme framed by Kodály’s and Ravel’s duos, with a Bach violin partita and a Reger cello suite in between. In 1932 Piatigorsky, a skilled writer for his instrument since his silent movie days, collaborated with Stravinsky on the Suite italienne, based on Pulcinella.

Through the 1930s Piatigorsky’s fame grew and early in 1935 he gave the première of the Castelnuovo- Tedesco Concerto in New York, with Toscanini. Later that year came his London recital début, with three concerts at the Grotrian Hall. In 1940, by now based in the United States, he gave the first American performance of Prokofiev’s Concerto with Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, and the next year he performed Hindemith’s Concerto with them. In 1942 he took American citizenship. In 1949 the socalled Million Dollar Trio was formed, featuring Artur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz and Piatigorsky; later the string trio with Heifetz and William Primrose came into being, and in 1961 the Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts were established in Los Angeles. Besides those mentioned above, Piatigorsky had works with orchestra written for him by Stan Golestan and Milhaud, a sonata by Hindemith, and the Variations on a Theme of Rossini by MartinÛ. His cellist colleagues Enrico Mainardi and Gaspar Cassadó dedicated pieces to him. His most successful commission, William Walton’s Concerto, was first given in 1957. Piatigorsky taught at the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia, through the 1940s, was associated with the Berkshire Music Center, Tanglewood, was at Boston University from 1957 and from 1962 was professor at the University of Southern California. In 1962 and 1966 he returned to Moscow as a Tchaikovsky Competition juror. His seventieth birthday was marked with a Carnegie Hall concert at which ten cellists performed, and in 1974 he visited London for the last time, to play sonatas with Daniel Barenboim. He died in Brentwood, near Los Angeles, on 6th August 1976. Early in his career Piatigorsky played a bastard Amati-Stradivari cello, the ‘Arlecchino’, with which his pre-war records were made. Then he had a Montagnana which he dubbed ‘The Sleeping Princess’, because it had not been played for more than a hundred years before he acquired it. Later he owned three Stradivaris, the 1696 Lord Aylesford (used by Janos Starker after him), his favourite 1714 Batta and the 1725 Baudiot.

Piatigorsky had few invitations to record concertos and he refused to do the Concerto in B flat by Boccherini, a composer he revered, because he hated Grützmacher’s reworking. The Schumann Concerto, featuring his own cadenza, was his only pre-war orchestral recording, although in 1932 the first movement of the Dvofiák Concerto was recorded live in Copenhagen, with Nicolai Malko conducting the Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra. Made with the then new London Philharmonic under John Barbirolli, himself a cellist, the Schumann shows off Piatigorsky’s tonal lustre and technique. At the end the oboist Leon Goossens cannot resist uttering an audible ‘Bravo!’, forgetting that the recording machine is still running. Piatigorsky named Barbirolli as his favourite accompanist, although this was the only time they collaborated in the studio. Saint-Saëns’s A minor Concerto was done with Fritz Reiner conducting a pickup group of New York freelances and players from the Metropolitan Opera and Philharmonic-Symphony (Piatigorsky also recorded Don Quixote and the Brahms Double Concerto with Reiner, Milstein being the violinist in the latter). The encore pieces, with Piatigorsky’s usual accompanist Ralph Berkowitz, were chosen by the cellist to show off his tone and phrasing rather than his virtuosity; only his own Weber transcription extends him at all. Several of the Russian pieces were originally for the human voice (Rachmaninov’s wordless Vocalise was written for Antonina Nezhdanova, with whom Piatigorsky worked at the Bolshoy) and they give the cellist a chance to show off the ‘speaking’ tone he learnt from Chaliapin.

Tully Potter


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