About this Recording

Charming Cello
Best loved classical cello music


People often cite the cello as their favourite string instrument on account of its similarity to the human voice, its warmth of tone, the dramatic quality of its upper register and its directness of communication. Composers have been attracted to its versatility, both for its capability for great melodic expressiveness and an ability to function as a chamber ensemble’s harmonic foundation with its lower register, qualities which can be heard in all of the best chamber music. The cello is always to be found in symphony orchestras, typically with eight to twelve instruments depending on the size of the orchestra. It is also an essential member of the traditional string quartet as well as string quintets, sextets, trios and mixed ensembles.


The origins of the cello are hard to trace, since there is such a wide variety of instruments that might claim to be a predecessor. Descriptions of bowed string instruments tuned in a similar way to today’s cello, with each open string sounding an interval of a fifth apart, can be found in the late 14th and 15th centuries, but truly ancient ancestors of the modern cello seem to have originated in India and the Far East, arriving in Europe through Arab trade routes and with varieties of nomadic tribes. The viola da gamba, now familiar as part of period ensembles, didn’t emerge until the end of the 16th century. It was supported by a lower ‘leg’ hence ‘da gamba’. Like stringed instruments today, the family members came in various sizes, from soprano to contra-bass, being collectively known as ‘viols’. Played in small ensembles or consorts, these instruments became hugely popular amongst the aristocracy in France in the 18th century. Tuned in fourths but suffering the disadvantage of never being standardised in terms of size and shape, the viol family otherwise shared several characteristics with an instrument originally named the ‘violoncello’ in the 16th century. This advanced to replace viols by the mid-18th century. Its greater volume of sound and versatility as both a solo instrument and as an ensemble member was built upon through technical improvements over the years; its strength increased to allow for greater tension in the strings, which in turn developed from stretched gut to wire-bound strings. Both types of string remain in use today for their differences in timbre: gut strings giving a more intimate sound, whilst wire-bound strings, especially those with a steel core, provide greater volume and projection of sound.


In conception the cello could hardly be simpler—merely a set of four strings stretched over a hollow box that gives volume to the sound of the strings as they are made to vibrate by a bow drawn across them. Hundreds of years of evolution contributed to the high level of sophistication in the construction of the cello, a peak of refinement that gives it such a beauty of sound and depth of expression. The entire assembly of different kinds of wood making up the instrument has to be made to highly exacting measurements in order for it to play well, from the subtle curves of the top and back boards to the shape of the ‘f’ holes, the placement of the bridge, the angle and length of the neck and fingerboard: the slightest mismatch in any one element can make the difference between a great instrument and one which fails to ‘sing’. There are essential but hidden items inside the body of the cello that also play crucial roles, such as the sound post, a cylinder of wood wedged between the top and back boards that transfers vibrations throughout the instrument, and a reinforcing strip of wood under the top called a bass bar that enhances lower sonorities.


Often underestimated but equally important is the bow. Modern bows have a concave shape that helps keep the ribbon of horsehair which makes contact with the strings under the kind of tension that allows every subtlety of sound, from the dramatically intense to notes that can border on silence. The hair comes from horses’ tails, and this hair has to be rubbed with a cake of rosin—a mixture of pine resin and turpentine—that coats the hair of the bow to provide it with enough friction to make the strings of the cello vibrate. Different designs of bow have been tried over the years, the most noticeable of these being the so-called ‘Bach-bow’. This has a convex stick that flexes, allowing the ribbon of horsehair to make contact with all of the strings of the cello at once if required.


Makers of stringed instruments such as violins and cellos are called luthiers, and famous names from the past such as Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri, ‘del Gesu’ (1698–1744) have a legendary status amongst players and command astronomical prices due to the rarity of their instruments and the reputation they have for beauty of sound. Luthiers aspire to make instruments with the quality and personality of their professional forebears, while creating their own unique legacy in instruments that will be enjoyed for hundreds of years.


The names of famous cellists from the pre-recording years, such as Boccherini, Duport, Franchomme, Davidov and Popper, have been kept alive by the compositions they have left us. Of the performers who have become legendary through their recordings, Pablo Casals has to be a first choice. A native of Spain, Casals’ pioneering and influential style brought world renown, and he is credited with bringing the Bach Suites for solo cello to public attention after famously finding a copy of the sheet music while browsing in a thrift shop. The Suites were virtually unknown in the late 19th century, and it wasn’t until Casals’ recordings of them in 1939 that their popularity really took hold.

Mstislav Rostropovich, known as ‘Slava’, was one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century, his legacy including a significant increase in repertoire for the instrument due to the many commissions he gave to composers, inspiring and premiering over 100 new works. There are several identifiable ‘schools’ of cello playing including those of Germany, France and Italy. Rostropovich represents the Russian school of cellists who, alongside other great names such as Gregor Piatigorsky, travelled widely and became hugely influential as performers and teachers all over the world.

Lines of descent in the cello world are as important as with any other instrument, and the much-admired French cellist Paul Tortelier declared that Pablo Casals had been his greatest influence. Tortelier’s vividly dynamic style had a considerable impact on 20th century cellists, and performers such as Jacqueline du Pre flocked to his masterclasses. Jacqueline’s career and life were tragically cut short by multiple sclerosis, but the huge popularity of her recordings, in particular of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, helped bring her instrument even closer to the mainstream in music. When it comes to popularity, American cellist Yo-Yo Ma takes first prize not only for his award-winning recordings, but also an inquisitive musical mind that has brought about collaborations with musicians from genres including folk, world and pop music. Incidentally, one of Ma’s cellos is the Davidov Stradivarius, given to him by Jacqueline du Pre. Famous players today include Julian Lloyd Webber, Truls Mork, Steven Isserlis, Mischa Maisky, Maria Kliegel and Alisa Weilerstein, with others such as Matt Haimovitz, Maya Beiser and Frances-Marie Uitti at the avant-garde of new developments in contemporary music.

Cello music

Music for the cello as a solo instrument arrived relatively late in terms of music history, and Bach’s Suites were in fact highly unusual for their time. From the next generation, Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805), who was one of the greatest cellists of the late 18th century, advanced the technical content of his concertos and sonatas, particularly exploring the high register of the instrument, and this did much to advance its position as a challenge to the more ubiquitous violin. In the mid-18th century in Austria and Germany, the cello flourished as part of the famous orchestra at the court of Mannheim, and Joseph Haydn was able to bring the cello into equal status with the other instruments in the string quartets and concertos he was composing as part of his duties in service in the Kapelle of Prince Esterhazy. One of the Esterhazy cellists, Anton Kraft (1749–1820) also worked with Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), who composed his Triple Concerto with Kraft’s remarkable abilities in mind. Beethoven’s innovations also included pieces composed for piano and cello, his two Cello Sonatas, Op. 5 being an experiment in what was then a new type of ensemble. Beethoven had a clear affection for the cello, returning to it with his Op. 69 and Op. 102 sonatas later in life.

The cello’s lyrical qualities as well as its ability for sonorous depth proved irresistible to many composers in the Romantic era, and key works of the 19th century for cello and orchestra include Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, Antonin Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 and Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. Central to chamber music for cello in this period are Johannes Brahms’ First and Second Cello Sonatas from widely differing periods in the composer’s life, and together forming amongst the most important cello sonatas from the second half of the 19th century. Even in this period, works for cello frequently started out as violin originals—Cesar Franck’s exceptional Sonata in A major for instance, which appears in a composer-approved arrangement for cello and piano made by cellist Jules Delsart.

The 20th century saw a transition from the lush Romanticism expressed in works such as Sergey Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G minor (1901) and Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto (1919) into the dizzying variety of style and character found in works for cello by composers such as Benjamin Britten, William Walton, Zoltan Kodály, Béla Bartók, Bohuslav Martinů, Francis Poulenc, Paul Hindemith and many others. Fine musical examples can be found from Europe, America and beyond, although the cello still lags behind the violin when it comes to sheer quantity of repertoire. Essential 20th-century cello works such as Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra and Gyorgy Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello provide a further springboard for exploration.

The cello can be heard in sophisticated arrangements in pop music by the likes of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, but its inherently sweet qualities make it a less frequent choice for pop and rock music in general. You will hear it more often in film and TV scores, being a leading voice in themes such as that for the popular series Game of Thrones. In jazz, bass players such as Oscar Pettiford used the cello as a solo instrument, tuning their instrument in fourths to put it an octave above the double bass while keeping the same playing positions. Amplified and put through an array of electronic effects the cello can become as edgy as any instrument, and this can be heard in groups such as Apocalyptica from Finland, best known for their versions of Metallica songs. The electric cello, having no need for a sound box, manifests itself as a skeletal version of the original, with scroll, fingerboard, strings and bridge in their usual place but without the shape of that familiar body in which the essence of the cello seems to reside. With its rich history, wonderful sound and impressive versatility, the cello will surely continue to encourage artists to find new ways to perform on the instrument, delighting music lovers for centuries to come.

 1  J.S. Bach: Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 – I. Prelude

Each of Bach’s six Suites for solo cello start with a Prelude, of which this example from the First Suite has become one of the most celebrated in the entire cello repertoire. Characteristic of these works is Bach’s use of the solo instrument to create counterpoint and polyphony, the arpeggiated or broken chords of this prelude creating a rich texture in which melody and harmony take an equal role.

 2  Saint-Saëns: Le Carnaval des animaux – XIII. Le Cygne (‘The Swan’)

Le Carnaval des animaux (‘The Carnival of the Animals’) was originally written for private performance, but Le Cygne (‘The Swan’), which Saint-Saëns dedicated to his cellist friend Charles Lebouc, was the only piece from it that he allowed to be published in his lifetime. This beautiful tune therefore became primus inter pares in the humorous animal-themed suite, and is known today as one of the most popular cello encores.

 3  Vivaldi: Concerto in G minor for Two Cellos, RV 531 – I. Allegro

Antonio Vivaldi, known as ‘The Red Priest’ for the distinctive colour of his hair, is supremely famous today as the composer of The Four Seasons. Despite being hugely prolific as a composer he wrote only one concerto for two cellos, employing these solo instruments in close imitation to one another, so that the listener can hear each musical statement shadowed or repeated between the cellos, as in a lively conversation.

 4  Schubert: Arpeggione Sonata in A minor, D. 821 – II. Adagio (excerpt)

Originally written for a novelty instrument called the arpeggione, a form of bowed guitar, Schubert’s Sonata D. 821 is today almost always heard performed with cello or viola. Schubert was a composer of songs, and so it is hardly surprising that the gorgeous central Adagio takes the form of a fine singing melody for the cello.

 5  Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69 – II. Scherzo: Allegro molto

Beethoven dedicated his Third Cello Sonata to his friend and patron Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, who was an amateur cellist. The two courted the sisters Anna and Therese Malfatti, the first of whom married Gleichenstein in 1811, bringing his close friendship with Beethoven to an end. On the autograph of the sonata Beethoven wrote the words Inter lacrymas et luctus (‘Amid tears and sorrows’), but there is little sign of such moods in this lively music.

 6  Haydn: Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major, Hob.VIIb:1 – I. Moderato

Joseph Haydn has long held the well-earned status as a father-figure in the history of music. He spent much of his career in the service of the aristocratic Esterhazy family, but this resulted in a prolific output and meant he had brilliant musicians such as the cellist Joseph Franz Weigl at his disposal. It seems likely that this concerto had a special festive significance, Haydn paying tribute to his patron in this first movement by quoting a theme from a congratulatory cantata (Hob.XXIVa:2) he had previously written for the Prince’s name day.

 7  Schumann: 5 Stücke im Volkston (‘5 Pieces in Folk Style’), Op. 102 (version for cello and piano) – No. 1. Mit Humor

Schumann loved the cello but, apart from his Cello Concerto, the Fünf Stücke im Volkston is his only surviving piece written specifically for this instrument. It would seem that the title Mit Humor carries a certain irony. Schumann subtitled this movement ‘vanitas vanitatum’: the comedy of mankind’s vanity placed against the transience of life.

 8  Fauré: 3 Mélodies, Op. 7 – No. 1. Après un rêve (arr. P. Casals for cello and piano)

Gabriel Faure’s musical language is characterised by subtle changes of harmony and a gift for melody expressed in numerous songs. Après un rêve became one of his most popular pieces. Its text describes a lover’s dream of romantic flight away from the earth and ‘towards the light’, heard here in a transcription by Pablo Casals that keeps all of the original’s nostalgic charm.

 9  Rachmaninov: Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19 – III. Andante

We can thank Rachmaninov’s meeting with the cellist Anatoli Brandukov for his few works with cello, of which this Sonata exemplifies the lyricism and deep expressiveness of his most fertile years as a composer. Full of yearning and nostalgia, this Andante stands out as one of the most romantic cello and piano duos ever written.

 10  J.S. Bach: Cello Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009 – V. Bourrée I and II

With the exception of the Preludes, each of Bach’s Suites for cello solo consist of a variety of dances. The Bourrée is a French duple-time dance in a moderate tempo in two sections, the first of which is repeated by way of a conclusion. The second Bourrée in the Third Suite is set in the tonic minor key, giving it an especially poignant feel.

 11  Chopin: Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65 – II. Scherzo: Allegro con brio

Chopin was one of the greatest virtuoso pianists of his time and his compositions are almost exclusively for the piano. His friendship with the famous cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808–1884) brought about most of his chamber works for cello and piano. The Cello Sonata in G minor is a late work, the three-part Scherzo of its second movement having a central Trio section with sublime melodic delicacy.

 12  Saint-Saëns: Allegro appassionato in B minor, Op. 43

Camille Saint-Saëns was one of Western music’s most extraordinary musical prodigies, and was a central part of the Parisian scene for many decades. Founded in 1861, Jules Pasdeloup’s ‘Concerts populaires’ offered music to audiences at popularly affordable prices. Saint-Saëns dedicated his Allegro appassionato to the principal cellist of this organisation, Jules Lasserre, delivering a restless scherzo that affords a brilliant display of technical dexterity from the soloist.

 13  Glazunov: Two Pieces for cello and orchestra, Op. 20 – II. Sérénade espagnole: Allegretto

Alexander Glazunov was a significant and influential figure, successfully reconciling nationalism and cosmopolitanism in Russian music and acting as a figurehead in music education there in the first decades of the 20th century. His Sérénade espagnole uses a harp and plucked strings in its orchestration, evoking Spain in what might have been a recollection of Glazunov’s visit to that country in 1884.

 14  Ravel: Pièce en forme de habanera (arr. P. Bazelaire)

Swiss by paternal ancestry and Basque through his mother, Maurice Ravel combined his two lineages in a synthesis that became quintessentially French. His Habanera, well known in a number of arrangements, was originally composed for piano in 1897. It makes use of a Cuban dance-form popularised by Sebastian Yradier, a composer to whom Georges Bizet was indebted in his Spanish-themed opera Carmen.

 15  Stravinsky: Suite italienne – II. Serenata

The Russian composer Igor Stravinsky owed much of his early success to the impresario Sergey Diaghilev, who commissioned The Firebird for his Ballets russes, to be followed by Petrushka and, in 1913, the succès de scandale of The Rite of Spring. The Diaghilev-commissioned ballet Pulcinella, from which the Suite italienne is derived, was based on music attributed to Pergolesi. Immersion in this 18th-century style had a decisive influence on Stravinsky, starting a substantial neo-Classical period in his writing.

 16  Goodall: And the Bridge is Love (excerpt)

‘And the Bridge is Love’ is a quotation from Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. It tells the story of the collapse in 1714 of ‘the finest bridge in all Peru’, killing five people, and is a parable of the struggle to find meaning in chance and in inexplicable tragedy. This work for solo cello and strings is composed in loving memory of a teenage cellist, Hannah Ryan, the daughter of close friends to the composer, who died tragically in September 2007.

 17  Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 – I. Adagio – Moderato

Edward Elgar’s iconic Cello Concerto was written at a time in which the end of World War I was casting its long shadow over Britain and the rest of Europe. Its intensely concentrated thematic material represents the economy of means Elgar had found in his later chamber works, the grandiose nature of the first movement’s opening theme soon contrasting with that utmost tenderness to be found at its heart.

Dominy Clements
© Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd

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