Guilhermina Suggia, arguably the most famous Portuguese cellist, certainly one of the very earliest female stars of the instrument and, thanks to Augustus John’s 1923 portrait, one of its most recognised and glamorous early-twentieth-century exponents, was first taught by her father. Her frontal hold of the cello was highly unusual for a female player at the time, but the endpin was coming into use and undoubtedly helped to resolve the then-awkward problem of propriety for female cellists, since with it the instrument did not have to be gripped between the legs. The suitability of the cello for women was also an aesthetic question: in terms of voicing, the violin was naturally considered to be more appropriate. Suggia however appears to have garnered genuine approval and acclaim in matching (even furthering) her male contemporaries’ artistic verve in an age when the cello’s emancipation as a solo instrument was still recent.
Her first public appearance came at the age of seven and by twelve she was principal cellist in the Oporto City Orchestra; a year later she joined Moreira de Sá’s string quartet. With a grant from the Portuguese royal family Suggia went to Leipzig to study with Julius Klengel and later performed with the Leizpig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Arthur Nikisch. By this time she had already encountered Casals, whose approach (much freer in both left-hand and bowing techniques) contradicted Klengel’s. He, however, was known to be a sympathetic teacher who rarely interfered with his pupils’ individual musical character. He wrote glowing reports to Suggia’s benefactors, declaring her to be ‘a cellist with the highest artistic merit, who has no reason to fear comparison with cellists of the masculine sex’.
In musical terms Suggia was a faithful disciple of Casals, who took her as a pupil in Paris in 1906. The noble and ‘masculine’ qualities of her tone and her physical freedom with the instrument have often been attributed to his influence, although she is noticeably more restrained with vibrato. Their reputedly stormy romantic involvement came to a bitter end, however, with Casals’s apparent jealousy of Suggia’s male admirers getting the better of him. By 1914 Suggia had settled in London, consequently remaining a celebrated fi gure of British musical heritage. Her playing suited works of deep, rich and passionate character and she was considered a Lalo specialist (her Concerto recording here dates from 1946); a performance of Saint-Saëns’s A minor Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Adrian Boult in its fi rst radio broadcast in 1930 further deepened her reputation. She somewhat exalted the cello’s position in duo sonata repertoire, preferring to work with pianists of a subservient nature, although her performances with Tovey were more evenly matched.
Early in her career Suggia played a Montagnana cello which was presented to her by newspaper proprietor Edward Hudson, commissioner of the John portrait. She later played a 1717 Stradivarius, which upon her death was bequeathed to London’s Royal Academy of Music to fund cello scholarships.
On record, Suggia’s playing is typical of her generation, with a relatively narrow vibrato and liberal uses of portamento. There is consistency across all the recordings selected here, although her use of slow, long portamenti is perhaps most conspicuous in the Bruch example of 1927, whilst the 1928 Haydn concerto under Barbirolli is a little cleaner in these respects within the Romantic approach taken by both orchestra and soloist. The slow movement in particular is commendably brisk, and there is a pleasing litheness to the entire performance that hints not only at Suggia’s considerable technical prowess, but also at a refi ned and cultivated musical personality. Arguably, the Sinigaglia Humoreske (1924) is the least satisfactory, with slightly abrupt phrase endings and intonation not always comfortable to modern ears. It is nonetheless a fi ne representation of Suggia’s importance in promoting the cello as a virtuoso instrument during the early twentieth century.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)
Role: Classical Artist