And so to cellists

And so to cellists


norman lebrecht

October 22, 2018

In the last in our short series, these are the cellists I have heard in concert who made a difference to my life.

1 Casals (I only ever heard him conduct)

2 Paul Tortelier (quite unique in the Elgar concerto)

3 Jacqueline du Pre

Unforgettable in a Roman arena at Caesarea, the setting sun illuminating her hair

4 Slava

So many times unforgettable

5 Yo Yo Ma

6 Mischa Maisky

7 Natalie Clein

8 Alisa Weilerstein

9 Natalia Gutman

10 Steven Isserlis




  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    I am sorry you did not hear Daniil Shafran or Janos Starker.

  • Carmen says:

    Truls Mørk. He must be on the list!

  • Edo says:

    I agree that Tortelier in Elgar was formidable (I think I like his Elgar even more than the one by Du Pre)

  • Novagerio says:

    Alisa Weilerstein is a mediatic joke in my opinion, similar to that once over-hyped “phenomenon” Matt Haimowitz. She’s a DuPré wanna-be, but without the geniune talent, the immagination, sensitivity, artistic honesty and genius.
    I’d add Fournier, Gendron and Shafran on my Top-5 list by the way and definitely Truls Mørk among the real Biggies today.

  • MacroV says:

    I trust this omission is only because you never had the chance to hear him, but for me, #1 by a mile (or kilometer, for our metric friends) is Janos Starker.

    Followed by Tortelier, Gutman, Rostropovich, and Lynn Harrell. Have never seen Yo-Yo Ma, probably because he has only done “gala” wherever I’ve been.

  • John says:

    It’s such a mainstream list, like the others…
    How about people who actually shed a new light on interpretation:
    Pieter Wispelwey, Anner Bilsma, Jean-Guihen Queyras…

  • Sim says:

    Steven Isserlis 5th surely!

  • Keith says:

    Was Casals a particularly noisy conductor?

  • Anon says:

    I liked young Marius May back in the 1970s, but he curtailed his promising career for personal reasons. He was the son of Maria Lidka, who died in 2013, aged 99. I believe May now lives in Israel.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Anner Bylsma, Pieter Wispelwey

  • Sam says:

    Yoyo is the greatest

    • Jonathan Dunsby says:

      ===I liked young Marius May back in the 1970s,

      I saw him do Schumann with Muti at Festival Hall around then, then he seemed to sink without trace. I heard that he once terminated a Wigmore Hall concert partway through. Don’t know what that was about

  • Piefon says:

    This is a Nice list. I personally wouldn’t be for the inclusion of Weilerstein – I’ve always had a hard time with her interpretations.

    However, I’d add Gary Hoffman – he’s amazing. However I’d understand that Lebrecht wouldn’t have seen him – he doesn’t perform very often compared to other major soloists – because if you ask any young cellist – his name is synonymous with respect and utter perfection.

  • Siegfried Bassoon says:

    Yes, but what about bassoonists?

  • Pedro says:

    Tortelier, Schiff, Meneses, Mork, Gabetta, Gutman, Rostropovitch, Müller-Schott, Ma, Scheinwein ( former first cello of the Vienna Phil. ).

  • Brettermeier says:

    And here it’s

    Gautier Capuçon

    (I never saw Rostropovich live).

  • boringfileclerk says:

    Sadly never got to hear Casals play the cello live, but here goes:

    1) Yo-Yo Ma
    2) Jacqueline du Pre
    3) Heinrich Schiff
    4) Slava
    5) Robert deMaine
    6) Henri Demarquette
    7) Paul Katz
    8) Alisa Weilerstein
    9) Steven Isserlis
    10) Fred Sherry

  • Nigel Simeone says:

    Pierre Fournier, Maurice Gendron, Paul Tortelier, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Zara Nelsova, Emanuelle Bertand, Yo-Yo Ma.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    *Honorable Mention* Alban Gerhardt

  • Peter Sachon says:

    Piatigorsky, obviously.

    • Malcolm Kottler says:

      If that is a recent photo, you are too young to have heard Piatigorsky perform live. He died 42 years ago. Maybe you have heard a recording of a live performance, but that is not what Norman is talking about (at least I have assumed he means he was in the audience for the performance).

    • John B. says:

      Obviously instead of Isserls

    • Novagerio says:

      I think we were discussing cellists one has heard Live…

  • R. W. says:

    If you studied with Janos Starker then you would understand why he should be mentioned. Brilliant teacher , brilliant mind , brilliant musician.

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    Rostropovich, Lynn Harrell

  • Ben G. says:

    The Bulgarian Cellist Alexandar Somov, Principle of the Strasbourg Philharmonic should be mentioned here. The quantity of pieces in his repertoire is equal to that of any of the giants listed above. Gold Medal winner of the Guildhall School of Music in 1998. (first Cellist to receive the prize after Jacqueline du Pré in 1960).

  • JamesM says:

    Must add Zara Nelsova, who could transport you with one phrase. Her Beethoven Sonatas (with the eminent Arthur Balsam) are sensational. Schelomo was a calling card and she was inimitable in it. Slava praised her to no end, and I recall she was also the favourite cellist of Rafael Wallfisch in a Gramophone cello survey a few years back.

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    I have never been more moved by a cellist in a performance than I was by Daniil Shafran. It comes as no surprise the influence he had on numerous great cellists, including Steven Isserlis. The West has always downplayed him, perhaps because he did not leave his motherland and embrace the West allure, as another did.

    Daniil Shafran
    Heinrich Schiff
    Janos Starker
    Boris Pergamenschikow

    and Nicolas Altstaedt

  • M McAlpine says:

    One thing, you weren’t likely to see ‘the setting sun illuminating Slava’s hair’. The greatest cellist I heard (alas on disc only) was Emmanuel Feuermann.

    • Malcolm Kottler says:

      Since Feuermann died in 1942, 76+ years ago, there are not many alive today who heard him perform live.

      Yes, there are a few recordings of live performances by Feuermann, but those are not what Norman is talking about. To list someone you must have heard them live. In fact virtually everyone who is trashing Norman and then proposing their own list are not paying attention to the rules. You can list someone only if you have heard them perform live.

  • CelloFellow says:

    I understand that these are not only your choices, but also keeping it to those you’ve seen live… that is why I haven’t commented on any of your other lists. No matter how mainstream this list is and regardless of the omission of several deserving cellists (beyond those already mentioned by others: Feuermann, Rose, Vargas, Greenhouse, Navarra, etc etc)… I can understand the justification for pretty much all on this list.

    …but Natalie Clein? Really?

    I even can understand Alisa, even though she doesn’t have the stature of the others, she is certainly a great-in-the-making. But Natalie pales in comparison to Alisa, let alone the rest of the list.

  • Bruce says:

    • Lynn Harrell (most memorably, Don Quixote in Seattle, 2005 – the infamous “cell phone concert”) — pours his heart & mind into every note; has never “phoned it in” when I’ve seen him. Taught me a lot about being committed in the moment and not playing it safe.

    • Janos Starker (Haydn C Major in Seattle mid-80’s and again in St. Petersburg FL along with the Rococo Variations 1990) — how he was able to apply that extremely formidable intellect and technique with a light touch. (A lot of master musicians come to a point where they can’t — or at least don’t — resist doing a lot of tweaks & tricks “just because I can.”)

    Never saw Rostropovich. Have heard many other excellent cellists, but it’s always been a “well, that was lovely” experience, nothing life- or outlook-changing.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Sol Gabetta.

  • Mark says:

    What about Daniil Shafran ? A tremendous cellist, somewhat forgotten today …

  • Ed says:

    My 10 cellists live: Joseph Schuster, Mstislav Rostropovich, Paul Tortelier, Anner Bylsma, Pierre Fournier, Heinrich Schiff, Yo-Yo Ma, Maurice Gendron, Antonio Meneses, Boris Pergamenschikov.

  • buxtehude says:

    Any Czechs here who heard Sasha Vectomov live? He was hidden away in the Soviet zone and died (at 59) just before he might have become known in the West.

    His recordings of Martinu’s cello works are to-die-for, especially the 2nd cello concerto (which he premiered, long after the composer’s death).

    BTW I can’t help wondering whether Du Pre discovered and was influenced by Shafran during the Russian months she spent @ Rostropovich’s master classes…

  • Rustier Spoon says:

    Paul Watkins and Tim Walden

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    I can just imagine your list of harpists: Osian Ellis.

  • David Lowenkron says:

    Ha-Na Chang hardly ever performs on cello anymore as she is concentrating on conducting these days. The 2 times that I heard her in person were unforgettable. One recital consisted of unaccompanied Ligeti, Britten, and Bach while she was still in her middle teens!

  • Simon Scott says:

    The top cellists I have heard in concert:
    I enjoyed them all!

  • BassOne says:

    Ofra Harnoy

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Same comment I made about the violin list — if the test is did you hear them live, did they have to be great when you heard them?
    I was fortunate enough to hear Leonard Rose “live” just once but alas he was visibly ill and was not at his best. Zara Nelsova was in great form the one time I heard her. I am somewhat surprised nobody has mentioned Frank Miller. And just this summer I heard Anna Burden give a magnificent rendering of the Schumann Concerto. Probably few of you have heard of her. I never had before the concert. She’s on my list.

    Next up: violists that matter?

  • Paul Carlile says:

    Raphaël Sommer
    André Navarra
    Maurice Gendron
    Michaela Fukačová
    Steven Isserlis
    Truls Mork
    Sol Gabetta

    Others i’d love to include:
    Amaryllis Fleming
    H Schiff
    Lynn Harrell
    Natalia Shakovskaya….

    Those who i regret i never heard live:
    Suggia, (my cellist grandfather praised her concerts most highly!)
    Sasha Vectomov

    • Paul Carlile says:

      ..and i should add that i heard Slava in his three dimensions…..cellist, conductor and pianist- partner with Galina in remarkable song recitals. A fantastic musician, all round.

  • M2N2K says:

    Rostropovich, Shafran, Harrell, Ma – none of those many others whom I’ve heard live is on the level of those four.
    In recordings – Feuermann and duPre.

  • Geyve Walker says:

    We have had some wonderful cellists at Lake District Summer Music over the years but Robert Cohen is the one who never failed to move me deeply.