André Navarra was born to a musical family and was encouraged by his father, a double-bassist of Italian descent, to learn scales and solfege notation before embarking on cello and singing lessons at the age of seven. Two years later he was accepted at the Toulouse Conservatoire, from where he graduated with a first prize at just thirteen. This was followed by lessons with Jules Leopold-Loeb (who also taught Maurice Maréchal and Paul Tortelier) at the Paris Conservatoire, where he also studied chamber music with Charles Tournemire.
After this formal training Navarra, rather unusually, decided to develop his playing without a tutor, taking inspiration from violin pedagogues such as Flesch and Ševčík whose studies he transcribed for cello and to whom he attributed his much-envied bow technique. Remaining in Paris, he absorbed the influences of Feuermann, as well as the pianist Alfred Cortot and violinist Jacques Thibaud. In 1929 he succeeded Pierre Fournier as cellist of the Krettly Quartet which specialised in modern and avant-garde music, and founded the B.B.N. Trio with violinist René Benedetti and pianist Joseph Benvenuti (with whom he made several recordings as a duo). Winning awards such as the Vienna International Competition positioned him to embark upon a glittering career, but at the outbreak of World War II he shelved these plans to enlist in the French army. In 1945 he resumed his performing activities after a period of retraining and in 1949 secured a professorship at the Paris Conservatoire after Pierre Fournier.
Navarra performed across Europe, the USSR and the USA, working with conductors such as Pierné, Clutyens, Böhm and Barbirolli. He was famed for his athletic physique in his youth (being an accomplished swimmer and boxer) and always believed that a muscular build was helpful to cellists. Highly regarded for his well-developed cantabile tone and superlative technique, he became a successful soloist and recording artist; amongst his best-loved recordings is his Elgar Concerto with the Hallé Orchestra and Barbirolli from 1957. Like many great players he gave masterclasses, notably in London, where he was admired for being sympathetic and unpretentious. Alexander Baillie, who studied with Navarra, suggests that he was one of very few to develop a comprehensive method of teaching the cello, and in this respect he is certainly amongst the most influential European cellists. A lasting record of his approach to cello technique exists in a set of instructional films where Navarra emphasises the importance of precise, yet relaxed, arm and hand movements.
Navarra’s recording career spanned several decades. Recordings from the 1950s, including the neatly-articulated Elgar, as well as the tightly-wound, passionate Saint-Saëns and Lalo concertos with the Paris Opera Orchestra under Emanuel Young (1955), reveal Navarra in his mature prime. These recordings are enticing in many ways: Navarra’s agility and articulation are exemplary whilst the tone is tight, with a vibrato of great intensity but discreet width, creating a notable urgency. Arguably his tone is sometimes a little strained and nasal, but overall Navarra’s playing is a fitting testament to style and practice of the time.
Later recordings suggest a certain weakening of his left hand, with a vibrato that has become somewhat over-wide and unfocused. This mars otherwise admirable interpretations of Saint-Saëns’s Allegro appassionato in B minor (arranged for cello and piano) and Fauré’s Elégie with Annie d’Arco (both 1984). Nonetheless, the sense of shape and architecture is still very much present with this experienced and intelligent interpreter: something that comes across in his 1977 Bach Cello Suites, recorded in 1977 and epitomised here by the first. Careful use of tempo rubato to define the musical shapes characterises this suite (particularly effective in the Prelude), whilst a predominantly legato approach shows that these performances are very much of their time, paying little regard to period practices. All of these recordings show well Navarra’s strengths as an interpreter of considerable authority.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)