The Cello Concerto: An Overview and Timeline
by Patrick C Waller
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The deep sonorities and wide range of the cello mean that the instrument fares particularly well when juxtaposed with an orchestra. Unfortunately several great concerto composers didn’t complete one, for example J.S.Bach, Telemann, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov. And there are only a few cello concertos that would clearly be considered mainstream repertoire (perhaps Haydn’s two, Schumann, Dvořák’s B minor, Elgar, Walton and Shostakovich’s two). These have all been recorded many times and are likely familiar to most readers. My general purpose does not relate to those concertos, rather it is more to draw attention to less well known works.
Comparing the merits of recordings of works which have been recorded multiple times is not within the remit of this project. Nor is it a discography which attempts to identify every recording ever made: the only attempt to be comprehensive is in the identification of cello concertos. Given the limitations in my use of search engines, I acknowledge that it is unlikely that I was completely successful. I intend to revisit the project periodically to add missing information, provide updated information (especially on works recorded for the first time) and make corrections. I should be pleased to hear from readers in that regard (please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). Discussion about anything related to the project (and which are the “best” recordings) is of course welcome on the bulletin board.
The Google search engine
Thank you Google for what you did find and for the occasional bit of serendipity. I found the repeated assumption that I was surely looking for Sol Gabetta’s Elgar rather than information about much more obscure recordings a bit tedious but I couldn’t have done this without you.
The list of compositions for cello and orchestra on Wikipedia
I found this list early on and it was a very useful starting point.
Michael Herman’s national discographies
These are a remarkable achievement and, without them, the alphabetical list of composers would have been substantially smaller.
Petrucci Music Library - the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)
Another very valuable resource. As I expect readers will appreciate, you can’t just search Google on “cello concerto” and find obscure ones without going through hundreds of pages. But I did search this site in that way and it proved very fruitful.
MusicWeb International reviews found using its Google search engine (please note these invariably contain purchase links).
Sales websites: For recordings not reviewed on MusicWeb I have usually added in a link to a website from which a disc may be purchased and/or the recording downloaded. For preference I have used specialist classical music websites, notably Presto Classical because they normally provide significantly more information about the recording than general websites such as Amazon. But for discs that are no longer readily available I have used whatever I could find. In this regard I should mention Discogs as a very useful source with good documentation, particularly for recordings issued on LP that have not yet made it to CD. I have not systematically explored which cello concerto recordings can be streamed but, in general, most of what is currently “readily available” can be streamed from the major services and many recordings that are no longer for sale as new discs are there too. As with purchase websites, the specialist classical streaming services Primephonic and Idagio provide much better documentation and more apposite searching facilities than the generalists, although their catalogues are probably not as extensive yet.
Other sources: Wikipedia in various languages, Encyclopedia.com, websites of composers and major music publishers, and the German website Klassika were the main additional sources used.
The output of the project consists of the following:
A factual alphabetical section with one entry for each composer of at
least one cello concerto that has been identified, divided into 8 sections that can
be accessed via these links:
A series of nine timelines that will be created and published as articles on MusicWeb at intervals during 2021.
Those which have been completed can be accessed via links in the list
below. Within each timeline I will make some recommendations in relation to cello concertos and recordings that I have particularly enjoyed hearing.
Bearing in mind that for most works written before 1800 the precise date of composition is unknown and thereafter it is usually known, the timelines are as follows:
Composers of cello concertos born before 1780
Cello concertos written in the 19th Century
Cello concertos written between 1901-1940
Cello concertos written between 1941-1960
Cello concertos written between 1961-1970
Cello concertos written between 1971-1980
Cello concertos written between 1981-1990
Cello concertos written between 1991-2000
Cello concertos written in the 21st century
In addition, I have appended a list of cello concertos identified which were written after c.1850 but could not be dated and cannot with certainty be placed in the 19th century timeline.
In preparing the timelines I have had to consider a couple of general questions:
What is a cello concerto?
I have excluded works written jointly with other solo instruments and have mentioned in passing works for multiple cello soloists that I came across. For works written prior to the 20th
century, this was generally an easy question. Latterly though, freedoms
in form and frequent use of (sub)titles means that I found quite a few
works that might or might not be considered a concerto. If the composer
clearly did so then I have gone along with that. If others have done so
I had to make a decision based on the evidence I came across. But I have
mainly got round the problem by expanding the scope to include all
significant works for solo cello and orchestra/ensemble that I
identified. Those that I thought were not or probably not concertos are
not included in the timelines. They are included in the
Appendix “Other works for cello and orchestra” which is chronological unless the composer also wrote one or more concertos, in which case they are mentioned in the relevant entry in the alphabetical section.
When was a cello concerto written?
I appreciate that many works were written over a period of some years but I have only provided one date for each work, the ideal being the year when it was initially completed and performable. I have largely ignored revisions unless they were very major. If the year of completion isn’t known then I have used the date of the premiere, date of publication or occasionally date of first recording in that order of preference. On this basis I was able to use a date in the timeline for almost all works written after 1850 and have listed those which remain undated in an appendix to the timelines. Sometimes I came across conflicting dates and have had to decide which to use, basing this on the apparent authority of the source (composer websites taking ultimate precedence). But I really don’t think it matters much whether a work is dated say 1962 or 1963 and I only intend to alter dates if they are shown to be clearly and materially (i.e. several or more years) wrong.
The most significant cellists in terms of recorded concertos
In general, all the very great cellists of the mid-20th century - my shortlist would include Pablo Casals, Jacqueline du Pré, Maurice Gendron, Pierre Fournier, Zara Nelsova, André Navarra, Gregor Piatigorsky, Mstislav Rostropovich and János Starker - recorded some or all of the major repertoire works I alluded to in the introduction above. However, of these, only Rostropovich (and to a lesser extent Starker) pushed back the boundaries in a very major way in terms of recorded concertos. A substantial number of concertos were written for him in the second half of the century and he generally gave the premiere and recorded these works. In 1967 he performed the remarkable feat of playing 30 cello concertos over 8 evenings in less than three weeks in Carnegie Hall, most of which has been preserved in a set issued by Doremi.
Rostropovich is mentioned over 40 times in the alphabetical composer listings but he is not the cellist who is mentioned most. That accolade falls to Raphael Wallfisch with over 60 citations and he, above anyone else still performing, has done the most in terms of enabling us to be able to hear a wide range of cello concertos. Recording for several labels invariably highly committed performances in decent modern sound, I salute Wallfisch’s superb discography and one that is hopefully still work in progress.
Following on from the cellists mentioned above, and using the number of citations in the alphabetical listing as a proxy for recording less familiar concerto repertoire, there are a host of excellent cellists with multiple concerto recordings outside the main repertoire. Those cited ten or more times are: Erling Blöndal Bengtsson, Alban Gerhardt (who is recording a series of Romantic cello concertos for Hyperion), Steven Isserlis, Anssi Karttunen, Julian Lloyd Webber, Truls Mřrk, Siegfried Palm, János Starker and Paul Watkins.
Acknowledgements As indicated in the March 2021 update on the project's Home Page, since it was originally published I have received major help from Renate Dehmer. I am immensely grateful for her valuable contribution. The following other people have assisted me in various ways and I am most grateful to them: David Barker, Rob Barnett, Margarida Mota-Bull, John Shand and my wife, Jean. I am also grateful to Thorsten Benkel who identified some concertos I had initially missed.
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