Great Cellists Part II: Further Exploration

This is the second entry in a three-part series covering some of the greatest cellists of the last century. Although this is far from a comprehensive list of great cellists, it is a good start for anyone seeking to broaden their musical horizons, or hoping to understand a bit more about the cello, it’s repertoire, and the key players. In part one I talked briefly about Pablo Casals, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Yo-Yo Ma. In this entry, I will touch briefly upon some other great cellists including: Jacqueline du Pre, Janos Starker, Steven Isserlis, and Mischa Maisky.

Great Cellists Part II: Isserlis, du Pre, Starker, and Maisky

Jacqueline du Pre (1945 – 1987)

Jacqueline du Pre is perhaps most famous for her impassioned and highly expressive playing style. She is known most for her beautiful rendition of The Elgar Cello Concerto which is considered by many to be the standard against which all other cellists should be judged when performing this piece. Sadly, du Pre suffered from multiple sclerosis which ended her career early, at the tender age of 28, and ultimately took her life when she was just 42 years old. Despite her terrible misfortune, du Pre still lives on as one of the great cellists of her time and a tremendous female role model in a world which has long been dominated by men.

It’s worth mentioning that du Pre’s cello, the Davidov Stradivarius, is currently owned by Yo-Yo Ma. Du Pre was also famously married to Daniel Barenboim who remains a prominent figure in the world of classical music. A novel titled A Genius in the Family which was written by her sister Hilary later spawned a cinematic adaptation titled Hilary and Jackie. There is considerable controversy about the accuracy of the book and the film, especially because the film portrays Jacqueline du Pre’s private life in a particularly negative light.

Below is a video of du Pre’s entire Elgar performance which she gave when she was just 20 years old!

If you wish to explore some more of Jacqueline du Pre’s performances, take a look at some of the video links below. When watching these videos, pay careful attention to du Pre’s highly expressive playing style. Notice that while other cellists are typically more restrained, she makes grand and often exaggerated gestures which seem to add to her already huge tone and dynamic range.

Janos Starker (1924 – )

Considered by many to be the greatest technical player of his time, and something like a modern day Feuermann (we’ll cover him in part 3) in terms of his technical proficiency and skill, Starker is the golden standard for precision and control. Even in his eighties, Starker was able to perform some of the hardest cello repertoire so deftly and with such skill that many young professionals could only dream of playing so well.

Starker, like so many other great artists, still has his critics. Some people criticize Starker for being too clinical and more akin to a high-precision machine than a true artist. In fact, Starker suffers from the opposite form of criticism that du Pre did. While many people criticized her for being too grand and opulent, Starker is often considered to be too comfortable, too precise, and too perfect. After all, as some would say, we can hear the exact same performance by listening to a recording. A true artist varies their interpretation based upon their emotions, their passions, or their whims and fancies.

While I don’t agree with these criticisms, I can certainly understand why so many people might be critical of a musician like Starker. It is very hard to perform at his level, and doing so may cause some to feel that their artistic integrity has been robbed from them by endless repetition and monotony. But, despite what critics say, Janos Starker remains the preeminent cellist for his exquisite technique and his literal interpretation of the music. Starker has said that he is not interested in showing off the music on stage with large movements, and he is very committed to performing the music exactly as it was written by the composer.

Below is one of my favorite cello videos. At 64 years old, Starker performs the incredibly difficult Kodaly Sonata with more precision and control than perhaps any other cellist. In fact, the Kodaly Sonata is most closely associated with Janos Starker who first performed the piece for Kodaly himself at the age of 15.

Below are a few more video links of Janos Starker:

 Mischa Maisky (1948 – )

Mischa Maisky’s recordings of the Bach Cello Suites remain my personal favorite. Take a look at the video below, and you may see why!

The Prelude to Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite in the video above is a very difficult piece of music, and Maisky’s wonderful interpretation is a testament to his technical achievement and ability to bring a high level of artistry to even the most demanding repertoire. I know that some might scratch their heads and wonder why I’ve included Mischa Maisky and Steven Isserlis on a list of great cellists which includes the likes of Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, or du Pre. The simple answer is, that in my personal opinion, Isserlis and Maisky both perform at or near the level of any of the aforementioned performers on the list. In fact, for the Bach Cello Suites, I believe that Maisky remains unmatched by any of the other great cellists, but that’s a matter of personal taste.

Maisky is not without his critics, who often complain that he has too narrow a dynamic range and a propensity to play everything too loudly. But, I’ll let you be the judge of that. Take a look at the video links below to hear and see Mischa Maisky for yourself!

Steven Isserlis (1958 – )

In my opinion, Steven Isserlis is one of the most under-rated great cellists of today. While Yo-Yo Ma has become a household name, and other notable cellists such as Janos Starker or Jacqueline du Pre are well known amongst classical musicians, Steven Isserlis is still lesser known even to many cellists, which is a terrible shame to say the least.

Mr. Isserlis is not just a great musician, he is a story teller. He is capable of taking a musical passage which has been all but worn out by generations of great cellists before him, and turn it into something vibrant, new, and alive. Even the most obscure musical passages become so full of energy, life, and dynamism, that the listener can’t help but to imagine the a story unfolding exactly as the composer had intended.

In the video above, Isserlis performs the Elgar Cello Concerto, the same piece of music that Jacqueline du Pre was famous for. Although most people consider du Pre’s version to be the gold standard, Isserlis’ recording is my personal favorite. If you’ve already had the opportunity to listen to du Pre’s version, then you can appreciate the differences in each musician’s respective performances.

Notice that when Isserlis plays, there is a very high level of technical mastery. His bow strokes are just right, each note is shaped and shaded perfectly to match the character and mood of the music, and his dynamic range is surpassed by few, if any of the other great cellists. In fact, Isserlis is known perhaps most for his masterful use of dynamics. A perfect example of this may be found at 0:32 seconds in the video above, as he makes a dramatic crescendo at the end of the opening passage to the concerto.

If you would like to hear more from Steven Isserlis, take a look at the video links below:


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