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April 6, 2013

The Best Cello Concertos

Many lovers of classical music feel that the violoncello with its warm, deep tone is the most beautiful instrument in the family of the strings. The number of concertos written for it is much smaller than those for the violin or the piano, but regrets are unnecessary: after all, many piano and violin concertos are empty virtuoso stuff, while in the case of the contemplative cello, there is a larger percentage of serious music.

The cello was invented in Italy around 1660, where Vivaldi was the first composer to create a large oeuvre for the instrument. It took time to conquer Northern Germany, however, where the viola da gamba ruled supreme (viz. the viola da gamba concertos by Telemann) – the six Bach Suites for Solo Cello are the exception rather than the rule – in the 6th Brandenburg Concerto Bach used at the same time both the modern cello and older viola da gambas as well as violones, demonstrating that these instruments still peacefully coexisted.

The middle of the 18th c. saw several composers of cello music, especially in southern Europe (a host of almost unknown composers, such as Giovanni Battista Cirri or Leonardo Leo), but also in the German lands, such as C.P.E. Bach. A great cello promoter in the 2nd half of the 18th c. was the Italian Luigi Boccherini, who worked at the Spanish court. In Austria at that time, Haydn, Wagenseil, Hofmann and Pleyel were active. The instrument was constantly used in chamber music, especially in the string quartet that had been established by Haydn, and also became a fixture of the classical orchestra.

But the first half of the 19th c. saw a tailing off of the repertoire. This was the age of the great virtuoso players, starting on the piano with Beethoven and Liszt, and Paganini on the violin. On the cello, that sort of virtuoso music was not (yet) possible – see the lyrical and deliciously unheroic concerto by Schumann from around the middle of the century. In the second half of the 19th c. the fate of the cello as a solo instrument became brighter, with the famous Dvorak concerto, the activities of cellist/composers like David Popper, music by Brahms and Tchaikovsky, etc. The cello by this time had also been redesigned, to produce a wider range and brighter tone. But the great age of the cello would be the 20th c., when the instrument was promoted by cellist/composers like Klengel, and when great virtuosi as Casals, Rostropovitch, Piatogorsky, Starker and many others were active - and through their flawless technique and championing of repertoire inspired composers to write for their instrument. Cello concertos and sonatas became standard in every composer's work. The recent interest in authentic music has also led to a revival of the baroque cello, with players such as Anner Bylsma.

The list below is a personal assessment - and I have to confess I am not so fond of the all-too popular Dvorak, Haydn, Saint-Saens and Elgar concertos, probably due to over-exposure (on top of that, there are authenticity problems with the Haydn concertos).

Here is my list of favorite cello concertos:
  1. Vivaldi (1678-1741), Concerto per due celli in sol minore RV 531.
    Not one but two cellos, a true and awesome double concerto, leading to interesting timbres on this prodigious instrument – starting with an impressive low rumbling, a long fantasia-like introduction over a continuo pedal note. Vivaldi wrote more than 25 cello concertos but this is the one to single out. The concerto exemplifies Vivaldi's liking for homo-tonality – the casting for each movement is in the same key, g minor. The retention of this key for the slow movement enhances the brooding, sombre mood of the work. Also note the typically Vivaldian canonic exchanges in this movement, scored only for the two cellos with continuo.
    Recording listened to: The Academy of Ancient Music directed by Christopher Hogwood on L'Oiseu-Lyre (period instruments).
  2. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), Cello Concerto in A major Wq. 172/H439. The eldest surviving son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach and the best known of all Bach's offspring for his musical prowess. Received his musical education from his father. C.P.E. Bach was a creative composer who wrote in an original and personal style. Among the 50 concertos he composed are three cello concertos, usually thought to have been written around 1750. This was not only the time of his father's death, but also a period which marked the end of the late-baroque era and the start of the classical period in music. C.P.E. Bach's forward-looking music provides a link between those two styles - it is elegant yet expressive and emotional and at times even sounds quirky! My favorite among the three cello concertos is the one in A major because of its melancholic, dark timbred Largo - one of the best examples of the "Empfindsamkeit" in music.
    Recording listened to: Anner Bylsma with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, dir. Gustav Leonhardt, on Virgin Classics (period instruments).
  3. Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), Cello Concerto No. 7 in G major (G 480). Luigi Boccherini was another great cello master – the instrument features prominently in all his music. His most famous concerto is one he never wrote – a pot-pourri from his G480 and G482 concertos concocted by a late 19th century German cellist – a hoax that unfortunately is still being performed (always by orchestras with modern instruments – two of these shamefully romanticized versions still around are by Jacqueline du Pre and Yo-yo Ma) but should be forgotten as soon as possible. So go for the real Boccherini in a performance on period instruments and in authentic style. Twelve concertos are known, besides 34 cello sonatas and many quintets with double cello parts. Boccherini has a great gift for lyricism and that is especially evident in the adagio of the present concerto, where the singing cello playing in its high register - a novelty at that time - is only accompanied by wavering strings.
    Recording listened to: Anner Bylsma with the Concerto Amsterdam, dir. Jaap Schroder, on Teldec (period instruments).
  4. Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 129. Schumann called the concerto "Concert piece for cello with orchestral accompaniment," which explains the perfect balance between soloist and orchestra. The cello part displays little in the way of virtuoso writing and the concert has an introspective quality which prevents it from revealing its treasures easily. But after a few hearings, Schumann's vein of lyricism becomes irresistible. Composed just before the Third Symphony in an astonishingly brief two-week period shortly after Schumann’s move to Düsseldorf in 1850, a time of optimism and creativity inspired by his new surroundings. The concerto is composed in three interconnected movements performed without a break. The beginning of the cello's opening theme in the dark first movement returns in the woodwind toward the end of the second movement. In that slow movement the cello sings in great lied-like melodies. The cadenza of the third movement is fully written out and accompanied by the orchestra. This final movement is full of youthful enthusiasm and ardour and allows the concerto to take wing. A neglected masterpiece. Recommended recording: Mischa Maisky and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon; or Natalia Gutman and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, dir. Claudio Abbado, also on Deutsche Grammophon
  5. Eugen D'Albert (1864-1932), Concert for Violoncello and Orchestra in C major, Op. 20. Eugen D'Albert was born in Glasgow as the son of a German ballet composer of French and Italian parentage and an English mother. A child prodigy on the piano, he became Franz Liszt's favorite disciple and regarded Germany and especially Berlin as his true home. He led an unsettled and hectic life as a travelling performer, but gradually found more time for composition, not only for his own instrument but in various genres, including opera. In spite of its technical prowess, Eugen D’Albert’s cello concerto from 1899 favors the anti-heroic style and possesses an almost classical noblesse, so it can be said to have the Schumann concerto in its background rather than, for example, the boisterous Dvorak piece. The lack of effect-seeking may also have been influenced by the cellist to whom it was dedicated: Hugo Becker, a renowned chamber musician and university lecturer, who eschewed idle brilliance. The concerto – its several movements fused into one in the Lisztian style - is notable for the quiescent, almost speculative nature of the solo line, and the heights to which the singing tone of the cello rises. The slow movement features lively wind writing, after which the finale blazes away with tuneful material. A happy and entertaining concerto. Recommended recording: Alban Gerhardt with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra dir. Carlos Kalmar on Hyperion.
  6. Julius Klengel (1859-1933), Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra No. 4 Op. 37 in B minor (1904). Julius Klengel (1859-1933) was one of the most important figures in the history of the cello - he can even be called an “institution.” He studied composition in his native Leipzig and made his solo début at 15 while a member of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, whose ranks he had joined two years earlier. His pupils at the Leipzig Conservatoire included some of the most prominent players of the twentieth century. He composed quite widely. Reger was a particularly good friend and colleague, but Klengel was also on excellent terms with Brahms and Taneyev. His most important work is the Concerto in B minor, a piece saturated with temperament and melodiousness, not only virtuoso music but also an extraordinary fine piece of work. The first movement has a supple melodic construction, full of flowing song-like passages – the recapitulation of the first subject has been omitted. The second movement is a romantic, pastoral intermezzo with a spooky scherzo at its heart, and the finale is animated and full of exuberance. A hugely likeable piece that is almost unknown. Recommended recording: Xenia Jankovich with the Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR dir. Bjarte Engeset on CPO. 
  7. Frederick Delius (1862-1934), Cello Concerto (1915). Those looking for grandiose concertos with mighty perorations should look elsewhere - this concerto, too, is for listeners happy to indulge in less demonstrative beauty. The lyrical music invites you to step into Delius’s garden of delights on an imaginary warm sultry afternoon, to doze and dream. The cello concerto was Delius's own favourite of his four concertos, due mainly to its melodic invention. Written in 1921 it was the last work that Delius was able to compose in his own hand before illness crippled him. Dedicated to Beatrice Harrison. The concerto is a predominantly pastoral and dreamy work, but certainly not lacking in invention. Its broad melodies suggest "the after-glow of the sun sinking.." Recommended recording: Paul Watkins with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, dir. Andrew Davis on Chandos.
  8. Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Cello Concerto (1929). Arthur Honegger was born in Le Havre, France yet maintained Swiss citizenship. A member of the group Les Six, he wrote the present concerto in 1929, at a time when he was strongly focused on writing scores for the theater. A concise concerto in a classical style, in the form of a divertimento. The concerto starts with an engaging moment, a brief cello melody against muted strings, lyrical and languorous. This is soon interrupted by humorous interventions, after which the cello adopts a swinging, jazzy persona. In the lento the cello plays a lament against a soft and gentle background, but the mood collapses into loud chaos. The finale blasts away with brisk and rocking music. A varied and fascinating concerto with a colorful atmosphere. Recommended recording: Julian Lloyd Webber with the English Chamber Orchestra dir. Yan Pascal Tortelier on Philips.
  9. Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1936). Early Hovhaness that miraculously survived the destruction of his pre-war years work by the composer himself. Rightfully so: this is already vintage Hovhaness, with luscious Oriental melodies. The composer’s signature is clearly audible in the sequences of rich, sonorous chords and the evocative use of old modes. The fusing of musical elements from different cultures and different times, including non-Western ones, is typical of Hovhaness. Where it differs from his later music, is the comparative lack of contrapuntal thinking. The work was written in 1936, but first performed in 1970. It is laid out in three movements, as usually with Hovhaness in the slow-fast-slow mold. Much of the music is serenely liturgical in character and there are also instances where birdsong is evoked. A wonderful discovery. Recommended recording: Janos Starker with the Seattle Symphony dir. Dennis Russell Davis on Naxos (world première recording).
  10. Nikolay Myaskovsky (1881-1950), Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in C minor, Op. 66 (1944). Autumnal is the word, not as the season of storms, but of forests full of red and yellow foliage, burnished by the low sun... The piece is among the late works of the composer and its themes contain various folk songs. The concerto is in two movements: Lento ma non troppo and Allegro vivace - the arc of the work is essentially slow-fast-slow. Myaskovsky's scoring in the first movement is inventive and often magical, while the cello is full of elegiac strain. The movement starts with a melancholy introduction. In the more propulsive middle section the movement is largely carried by the orchestra. A profound and sensitive work. Recommended recording: Alexander Ivashkin with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra dir. Valeri Polyansky on Chandos. 
  11. Samuel Barber (1910-1981), Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 22 (1945). A concerto without big tunes, but with an overall gentle atmosphere. Barber was commissioned to write his concerto for Raya Garbousova, a Russian cellist, by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The first movement makes the impression of a scherzo where juggling is going on with parts of melodies until a lovingly shaped chanting theme arises. The andante is dreamily and rhapsodic, and the finale is playful and light. The concerto makes considerable play of the higher registers of the instrument. Despite initial success, and the receipt of the Fifth Annual Award of the Music Critics Circle of New York, the concerto has established itself only at the margins of the repertoire, for one reason because of the high technical demands. Recommended recording: Wendy warner with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, dir. Martin Alsop on Naxos.
  12. Mieczysław Weinberg (also Moisey or Moishe Vainberg; 1919-1996), Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra in C minor, Op. 42 (1948). Besides this concert, the Russian composer of Polish-Jewish origin also wrote 24 preludes for cello and 6 cello sonatas. Previously almost unknown, he now is regarded as the third great Soviet composer after Shostakovich and Prokofiev. He was the friend and protégée of Shostakovich. This concerto has a Jewish folk character especially in the second movement with its imitation of a "klezmer" band. It is a concerto that unabashedly exposes its heart, going full circle from beginning to end. Recommended recording: Claes Gunnarsson with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra dir. Thord Svetlund on Chandos.
  13. Heitor Villa-Lobos, Concerto para Violonchelo y Orchestra No. 2 (1953). The most significant South-American composer of art music of the 20th century, known for his fusion of classical music with folk elements, in such novel compositions as the Choros and Bachianes Brasileiras. This concerto was written for and first performed by Aldo Parisot. This is a four-movement work, compact and well structured from the songful and heartfelt Allegro onwards. The work opens with a kind of ruminative quasi-cadenza for the cellist. The second movement evokes Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. The Scherzo has an engagingly brash folkloric lilt and the vibrant and rhythmic finale is highly enjoyable. Recommended recording: Antonio Meneses with the Orquestra Sinfonica de Galicia dir. Victor Pablo Perez on Auvidis.
  14. William Walton (1902-1983), Cello Concerto (1956). Often called a "gem," and considered as the best British cello concerto, above Bax, Bliss, Finzi, Moeran and even Elgar. Written in response to a commission from Gregor Piatigorsky. The first movement is lyrical, it even starts hauntingly mysteriously, the cello playing a long-spun theme over the plucked notes of the strings. The following second movement is a Scherzo, Allegro appassionato, centered on a lyrical trio. Even in this movement Walton refrains from using the tutti. The concerto ends with a theme and four improvisations, two for cello alone and two for the orchestra. The main impression of this movement, slow for a finale, is again lyrical, although a wide mood is covered before returning to the opening idea of the first movement. A concerto with distinctive melodies and full of subtle syncopation and emphasis - typically Walton. Recommended recording: Tim Hugh with the English Northern Philharmonia dir. Paul Daniel on Naxos.
  15. Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra, No. 1, Op. 107 (1959). The greatest cello concerto ever. Period. Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his popular First Cello Concerto for Rostropovich in 1959. The soloist occupies centre stage and is accompanied by a relatively small orchestra with double woodwind and no brass except for one horn - very active in the first movement. The opening movement is harsh and restless. Shostakovich suggested that it was a "scherzo-like march." The second, slow movement is meditative and poignant - a personal reflection. The third movement is entirely given over to the cadenza with the soloist musing intensely over material already stated while in the violent and even shattering finale everything goes down the drain in a sort of Dance Macabre / Dies Irae that reminds me of the final movement of the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. This is truly sublime music. Recommended recording: Mstislav Rostropovich with the London Symphony Orchestra dir. Seiji Ozawa on Erato; or Mischa Maisky with the London Symphony Orchestra dir Michael Tilson Thomas on Deutsche Grammophon.
  16. Miklos Rosza (1907-1995), Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1968). Written after Rosza's retirement from scoring Hollywood movies and dedicated to Janos Starker. A splendidly moody piece inspired by the composer's Middle-European background. The first movement has dark-hued lyrical passages for the orchestra and virtuoso passages for the soloist, weaving a counterpoint underneath the theme played by the orchestra. The second movement features an impassioned cello set against a misterioso accompaniment, in a set of variations. The finale is a tense rondo, ending in an idyllic mood, with soft, high trills. A big, modern piece. Recommended recording: Lynn Harrell with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra dir. Yoel Levi on Telarc.
  17. Henri Dutilleux (*1916), Cello Concerto "Tout un monde lointain" (1970). Dutilleux writes in a very individual style which is endlessly fascinating and strangely addictive in this concerto called "a whole distant world..." His idiom is very contemporary but also very accessible. There is always something to interest to the ear - constantly shifting, scintillating patterns, weird glissandos, pointillist colorings, etc. The cello concerto was a commission from Rostropovich, who also premiered the work. The title of the concerto, and of its five movements, are taken from Baudelaire. Tout un monde lointain is a nocturnal, mysterious work with a delicate orchestration and an eerily beautiful, yet highly virtuoso solo part. While most of the concerto is introspective and meditative, it also has occasional outbursts of violence and a frantic build-up to the ambiguous, suspended finale. The opening 'Enigme' (Enigma) is scherzo-like, 'Regard' (Gaze) is introspective, inhabiting a strange, remote soundscape. Meditative, but somewhat warmer is 'Mirroirs' (Mirrors). 'Houles' (Surges) is a seascape with the wind whipping the crests of the waves. 'Hymn' gathers together the preceding material. Wonderful music by a perfectionist who has only allowed a small number of his works to be published, and often considered as Dutilleux' best work. Recommended recording: Mstislav Rostropovitch with the Orchestre de Paris dir. Serge Baudo on EMI Classics.
Written with information from the CD booklets, Wikipedia, etc. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed).
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