Zara Nelsova was one of the great twentieth-century prodigies of the cello. The youngest daughter of Russian Gregor Katznelson, a flautist who had trained at the St Petersburg Conservatory and performed under the name ‘Nelsov’, Zara first came before the public with her two sisters (a violinist and a pianist) as ‘The Canadian Trio’. She was five years old at their first appearance, and thirteen when they played at the Wigmore Hall. Nelsova started lessons with her father at four-and-a-half on a converted viola and at six went to his colleague from the Orpheum Orchestra, Desző Mahálek, a former pupil of Popper. When Sir Hugh Roberton, Britain’s leading choral director at the time, heard her at a talent competition he suggested she and her sisters go to London to complete their tuition. Zara hoped to attend the Royal Academy but was too young, so went to Herbert Walenn at the London Violoncello School where her classmates included John Barbirolli, Lauri Kennedy and William Pleeth. Aged twelve she made her orchestral début under Sargent with the London Symphony Orchestra, playing the then-unfamiliar Lalo Concerto. She went to the USA during World War II, making her first New York appearance in 1942 and securing an international reputation.
Nelsova had always harboured an ambition to study with Casals and from 1948 attended two summer schools in Prades. During this period she gave the British premières of the Shostakovich and Hindemith sonatas and met Ernest Bloch; his Schelomo became associated with her and she performed his music frequently thereafter. Another equally significant connection was with Samuel Barber. Nelsova gave the British première of his Cello Concerto in 1950 and recorded it with him shortly afterwards. She was the first North American cellist to tour the USSR (in 1966, to great acclaim), and performed well into the 1980s on her magnificent 1726 Stradivarius ‘Marquis de Corberon’. Devoted also to teaching, she continued in this capacity to the end of her life, receiving a chair at Rutgers (New Jersey) at the age of eighty-one.
Nelsova’s playing is very much of her time, having less of the conspicuous retention of nineteenth-century practices found with players a generation older. Her style is unchallenging, with few and fast portamenti and an almost continuous, tight vibrato; but there is an intensity and directness which renders her performances especially vivid and can sound unfamiliar to modern ears. The ‘Ghost’ Trio with Schneider and Gould (1954) sounds clumsy and literal according to recent taste, but nonetheless testifies to a powerful union of great musicians and is an evocative reading. Nelsova’s prowess as a dramatist can be heard further in some fine Romantic cello sonatas, all of which demonstrate a rich, deep tone (well suited to the Brahms and Chopin works recorded with her then husband, Grant Johannessen, in 1968) and a real sense of dialogue which works especially well in the little-recorded Rachmaninov Sonata (1956). Meanwhile, her Bloch suite From Jewish Life (1950), with some portamento and a tight, discreet vibrato, is a passionate reading and shows us why Nelsova’s name was synonymous with Bloch’s music. Her celebrated 1950 recording of Barber’s Concerto under the composer’s baton has obvious historical significance: it remains one of the most convincing interpretations of the work and testifies to Nelsova’s overtly emotional musicianship.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)