The cello has been around as a respected concert instrument for quite some time, with many of the greatest composers in history composing pieces for it. The cello’s deep, rich sound can cover nearly the entire range of stringed instruments, making it ideal for composing complex solo works that show off the talent of the player. In this article, we’ll go over 17 of the best and most famous cellists of all time.
1. Pablo Casals
Casals was the absolute best cellist for the first half of the 20th century, but he was also a fantastic composer and conductor. While he did perform and record quite a lot, he’s best known for his recording of the Bach Cello Suites made between 1936 and 1939.
Casals was discovered as a child playing in a trio in a cafe by a Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz. His referral landed him a royal stipend to study at the Madrid Royal Conservatory, though he would eventually lose the stipend and move to Paris. Casals has played in several respected venues, including the Crystal Palace in London, The White House, and Carnegie Hall.
2. Yo-Yo Ma
Yo-Yo Ma is widely regarded as one of the best child prodigies to ever pick up a cello. By the age of four and a half, he was performing in concert, becoming one of the most recognized classical musicians in the modern world.
After graduating from Juilliard, Harvard, and Columbia University, Ma would play as a soloist in orchestras touring worldwide. In total, he’s recorded over 90 albums, winning 19 Grammy Awards, with quite a bit of work outside of the classical music genre. Folk music, bluegrass, traditional Chinese, Argentine, and Brazilian music are all within the man’s repertoire.
In 2020, Ma would be named on Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020. While we (and I’m sure you) are aware that high-quality instruments are not cheap, Yo-Yo Ma’s 1733 Montagnana cello is valued at around $2.5 million (yes, a million with an M).
3. Jacqueline du Pré
Jacqueline du Pré may have had a career that was cut short by multiple sclerosis, but she still belongs in any list of the best cellists of all time. By the age of 16, she debuted at Wigmore Hall (for those of us not in the know, that’s a big deal), playing sonatas by multiple composers, including Brahms, and a solo cello suite by Bach.
She would continue performing publicly with amazing orchestras like the London Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony. Du Pre would marry Daniel Barenboim, a conductor and pianist, and the two would go on to perform and record incredible works together. Unfortunately, du Pre’s playing ability declined as her “MS” grew in severity, cutting short the career of one of the most talented cellists the world has seen.
4. Luigi Boccherini
For this spot, we’re taking a walk back to the classical era. Luigi Boccherini was an Italian composer and cellist who worked mainly at the end of the 18th century. His style differed somewhat from the other composers of his time, ticking to the Galante roots of the Baroque period while evolving alongside his music.
Boccherini is best known for String Quintet in E major and Cello Concerto in B flat major. The skill Boccherini displayed as a cellist is evident in that he played violin repertoires on the cello, making use of the altered pitch to still play a recognizable piece.
As a composer, he pioneered pieces using the viola and two cellos but wrote hundreds of pieces for the strings. When it came to full orchestras, 30 symphonies and 12 virtuoso cello concertos are attributed to Boccherini.
5. Pierre Fournier
Pierre Léon Marie Fournier’s mastery of the cello allowed him to play it in such an elegant manner it created a more majestic sound than that of many of his peers. His style of play earned him the nickname The Aristocrat of Cellists. The Bach Cello suites, chamber music from Brahms and Schubert, and all of Beethoven’s cello sonatas were in his repertoire.
Fournier’s talent would see him tour across Europe, The US, and South America. During one stint in the US, it was revealed he had played on the Radio Paris radio station (quite a lot of times, 82 in fact), taking money from the invading Germans (Nazis) during WWII. While this may not seem too bad, it saw him banned from performing for six months and labeled a collaborator, though all he did was play his music on the radio.
6. Julian Lloyd Webber
You may have heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber thanks to his work on Broadway, composing for plays like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. His younger brother Julian is one of the best cellists living today. By 1971, Julian Lloyd Webber had debuted at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London and is regarded as one of the best British cellists to ever live.
His work has seen him included in over 50 recording works, earning him several Brit Awards and a Classic FM Red Award. Among his many prestigious venues and honors, Webber was the only classical musician chosen to play at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games closing ceremony.
7. Mischa Maisky
Born into a musical family with a successful brother of his own, Mischa Maisky is a Soviet-born Israeli cellist who studied at the Moscow Conservatory. After departing Russia and moving to Israel, Maisky would go on to perform in the US at Carnegie Hall and in London. Maisky has a staggering catalog of music, with a box set release of his recordings in 2021 containing 44 CDs.
8. Guilhermina Suggia
Guilhermina Augusta Xavier de Medim Suggia Carteado Mena (there’s a name for you) was a Portuguese cellist that studied under Pablo Casals. She would go on to find international renown for her skill, moving to the UK, where she performed even after her official retirement.
Suggia would leave behind a legacy that included a scholarship for young cellists in 1955, the very scholarship Jacqueline du Pré, Julian Lloyd Webber, and Steven Isserlis won. She would also leave behind a few recordings made on the gramophone, consisting of Haydn’s D major Concerto and Saint-Saëns’s A minor Concerto, both of which have been made into CDs so you can still listen to her original playing.
9. Mstislav Rostropovich
Another contender for greatest cellist of the 20th century has to be Mstislav Rostropovich. The Russian cellist and conductor was responsible for expanding the repertoire of the cello more than any other cellist before, both by inspiring, commissioning, and transcribing music compositions.
Over 100 pieces would be dedicated to or crafted for Rostropovich, and he had close friendships with many of his peers. Despite living in the Soviet Union and Russia, Rostropovich advocated for freedom of speech and art without borders, forcing him into exile for a portion of his life. Eventually, his work as both a musician and humanitarian would gain worldwide respect.
10. Paul Tortelier
Paul Tortelier was a world-class cellist who would play as a soloist around the world. He originally studied at the Conservatoire de Paris and played in orchestras in France after an excellent student career. After touring, he settled into teaching at various conservatories in France, Germany, and China.
One of his best works as a teacher was his time producing televised masterclasses. In addition to being one of the greatest cellists, Tortelier was also an innovator. He developed a new endpin that allowed the cello to be played at a slant instead of vertically. In theory, it allowed the instrument to vibrate more freely, projecting sounds further and deeper.
11. Steven Isserlis
As a cellist, Steven Isserlis commands an extensive repertoire and plays with a distinctive sound achieved with catgut strings (while gut strings are made with animal guts, they are rarely from cats).
Isserlis is active even today as a soloist, playing alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, and others. One of the things that compelled Isserlis to delve into teaching was his belief that music should be more accessible to younger audiences, authoring two children’s books on the lives of famous composers and a few other works targeted towards young composers. He serves as the artistic director at Prussia Cove in West Cornwall.
12. Heinrich Schiff
Born to two composer parents, it’s not surprising that Heinrich Schiff would find a career in music. A celebrated cellist and conductor, Schiff made his debut as a soloist in 1971.
While his career as a musician would be cut short due to health and shoulder issues, you can listen to his recordings of The Bach Cello Suites and the Shostakovich concertos today, which both won several prizes. After he had to put down the bow, Schiff would go on to be the chief conductor of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra, and Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur.
13. David Popper
A Bohemian cellist and composer of the Romantic period, Popper would make his debut in Vienna in 1867. He would eventually be made principal cellist of the Hofoper and a member of the Hellmesberger Quartet. For a time, Popper was happily married to pianist Sophie Menter, with whom he would tour extensively and play alongside Johannes Brahms briefly.
After the marriage dissolved, Popper accepted a teaching position at the Conservatory at Budapest in the strings department, where he served until close to his death. One notable thing about Popper was that he was one of the last legendary cellists not to use an endpin, though he would eventually begin using one by the end of his career.
As a composer, Popper wrote four cello concertos and several smaller pieces that are popular today, including Tarantella.
14. Sol Gabetta
This Argentine cellist began playing the violin at three and cello at age four, making her a veritable child prodigy. By ten, Gabetta had won her first competition and netted herself the Natalia Gutman Award. By 2006, she founded her own festival, won Gramophone Award for Young Artist in 2010, and received the Diapason d’Or for her recordings of Haydn, Mozart, and Elgar cello concertos.
Only born in 1981, Sol Gabetta now teaches at the Basel Academy of Music and continues to make recordings to this day.
15. János Starker
Considered one of the greatest cellists of all time, Janos Starker taught at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music from 1958 until his death in 2013. By age six, Starker had begun performing publicly, and by eight, he was teaching other children how to play the cello.
His professional debut came at age fourteen when he played the entirety of the Dvorak concerto on only three hours notice. While he was young, he was unable to escape spending three months in a Nazi internment camp thanks to his Hungarian ethnicity.
Once the war ended, he became the principal cellist of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, and by 1958 he would move to take the same role in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. During his career, Starker made over 150 recordings, winning a Grammy Award in 1998 for one of his recordings of the Bach solo cello suites.
16. Natalia Gutman
Natalia Gutman was a Russian cellist who studied under the great Mstislav Rostropovich for a time after studying at the Moscow Conservatory.
Another child prodigy, she played the cello from the age of five and went on to have a distinguished career at international competitions. Her devotion to young musicians led to her giving worldwide masterclasses and she teaches both in Moscow and at the Hochschule für Musik in Stuttgart.
17. Alisa Weilerstein
Another relatively young classical cellist, Alisa Weilerstein, debuted with the Cleveland Orchestra at the age of 13. In 2011, she was named a MacArthur Fellow, and she’s won numerous awards and honors. She’s best known as a champion of contemporary music, transcribing multiple classical works for the cello and debuting them in concert.
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