Classical Connections: Cello Fever

Shostakovich (left) and Rostropovich in 1959.

Did I ever tell you that I used to play the cello? I started at the relatively late age of thirteen, having begun piano lessons at about eight. So at least I could already read music which was one major hurdle out of the way. My first cello lessons were at school, given by a homely woman who was also the landlady of a public house down the road. She had a penchant for fulsome clothing and would sweep along the school corridor with her cello, like a Spanish galleon in full sail. She had an old battered instrument which had a curious whining sound, a bit like something singing while holding their nose. At school I also learned the useful skill of carrying a cello while riding a push-bike; an achievement in itself on our wind-swept island.

Eventually it was decided that I should have my cello lessons at a university on the mainland which involved a weekly train journey. The lessons were provided by a formidable lady who wore sensible shoes and had her graying hair tied in a tight bun at the back. She was clearly a competent teacher and eventually I became the best cellist on the island. Mind you, it was a rather small island.

Then, like all the other young instrumental players who imagine that they have a career in music, I went to music college. But I was no longer the big fish in a small bowl but an extremely insignificant fish in an ocean of advanced music students, most of whom were far better than me. Even so, my early relationship with the cello brought about an enthusiasm for the instrument, though I didn’t reach the incredibly high technical standard to become a professional orchestral player. In any case, by that stage, I had discovered other musical interests and playing in an orchestra was not one of them.

I was reminded about all this the other day when we were trying to name the most influential twentieth century cellists. Of course, this is a bit subjective because one tends to remember favourites rather than genuinely influential musicians. But how do you define “influential”? Musically, I suppose it could mean someone who has developed the playing techniques of the instrument, such as the 18th century cellist and composer Luigi Boccherini (he of the famous Minuet). Or it could mean someone like the brilliant Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich who either commissioned or premiered well over a hundred new works for cello. The Spanish Pablo Casals did an enormous amount to popularize the instrument and brought the cello music of Bach to public attention.

There are several web pages that provide lists of “the greatest cellists” though few attempt to define “greatness”. Anyway, I shall leave you to explore that option yourself. Some influential names invariably appear. I’ve mentioned Casals and Rostropovich, but we could add (in no particular order) Pierre Fournier (France), Jacqueline du Pré (UK), János Starker (Hungary), Paul Tortelier (France), Yo-Yo Ma (USA, Mischa Maisky (Latvia) and Emanuel Feuermann (Ukraine). You can probably think of several others.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Cello Concerto No 1. Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), BBC Symphony Orchestra cond. Mark Wigglesworth. (Duration: 31:27; Video: 720p HD)

British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason is one of the rising stars among today’s musicians. He was seventeen when he gave this stunning performance of the Shostakovich concerto at the final of the 2016 BBC Young Musician, after which he was proclaimed overall winner of the entire competition.

The work was written in 1959 for the composer’s friend Mstislav Rostropovich, who by some extraordinary mental feat, committed the entire concerto to memory in four days. The work is one of the most difficult cello concertos ever written. It was given its first performance in October 1959 in Leningrad and the following month in Philadelphia where one critic described the work as “the artistic equivalent of a manned rocket to Mars.”

A cello concerto presents a challenging problem for composers because the low notes of the instrument can become obscured by the orchestral sound. Shostakovich gets around this by using a small orchestra, minimal woodwind and no brass at all except for a single horn which is given dramatic and prominent solos. The work opens with four single notes from the solo cello. These are significant because they represent the composer’s name and they are changed in different ways throughout the entire work. The first movement is driving powerful music with intense rhythms and angular melodies. The brooding and strangely haunting slow movement is a dark sound-scape with poignant clashes of harmony and the use of cello harmonics that seems to speak of another world. It leads into the third movement: a cadenza of formidable virtuosity which leads into the bombastic and scurrying finale. This is a wonderful concerto, given even more appeal by a thrilling performance from a gifted young soloist. Just try to ignore the inane chatter from the BBC commentator.