5 Minutes That Will Make You Love the Cello

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love the Cello

In the past, we’ve asked some of our favorite artists to choose the five minutes or so they’d play to make their friends fall in love with classical music, the piano and opera.

This time, the goal couldn’t be easier: Persuade those same curious friends to love the cello, that most soulful of instruments. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your choices in the comments.

Even when the cello moves into its high register, the sound seems to emanate from a deep, russet realm. That quality comes through sublimely in the fifth movement of Messiaen’s mystical “Quartet for the End of Time.”

The composer indicates that this “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” should be played “infinitely slow, ecstatic.” Aren’t those words opposites? Not to Messiaen. The cello line is restrained, wistful, seemingly never-ending, but the cellist Fred Sherry brings just enough throbbing intensity to suggest spiritual ecstasy. The piano supports with a series of steady, spare, low chords, played by Peter Serkin with glowing richness and eerie calm.

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto is perhaps the most beloved work for cello and orchestra. It is an astounding piece. But as a performer, I am always looking for the preconditions of a composer’s creativity, the genealogy of a work. A very short story: In March 1894, Dvorak heard the New York Philharmonic perform his friend Victor Herbert’s new E-minor cello concerto. Afterward, Dvorak is said to have rushed backstage, telling Herbert it was “splendid, absolutely splendid.” Almost exactly a year later, Dvorak finished writing the concerto that we know so well.

While I was working with the cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras on the choreography for “Mitten wir im Leben sind/Bach6Cellosuiten,” he told me that, for him, the Sarabande of the Fifth Cello Suite is the quintessence of what Bach does in these suites: achieving transcendence through the dematerialization of music.

I decided not to dance to this sarabande and leave it like a delicate void, embraced by the physical and emotional intensity of the previous suites, and the glorious Sixth Suite that comes right after. This moment in the choreography might embody what T.S. Eliot describes so beautifully in the poem “Burnt Norton”: “At the still point of the turning world … There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

The opening eight bars of the Andante of Brahms’s B-flat Piano Concerto shine with a luster that places them high among the many melodic masterpieces this composer has given us. With a range of slightly over an octave, the home key of B flat brings a glowing warmth after the rousing Appassionato in D minor.

I don’t know why Brahms chose the cello to present this arioso. However, with its vocal characteristics and breathtaking control, always capable of producing the suggestion of portamento, it’s hard to imagine any other instrument for this role. The cello and this tune seem destined to come together, and we are once again in great debt to Herr Brahms.

The great Abdul Wadud comes to mind, and specifically a track from his 1977 solo record “By Myself,” called “Camille.” I first learned about Wadud’s work mostly from recordings with Julius Hemphill such as “Dogon A.D.,” then work he did with James Newton and Anthony Davis. I was super excited to learn that he had a solo record, but I could never find it! A friend of mine had to make a copy for me.

Finally, I got a vinyl copy about six years ago and even got to meet Wadud and have him sign it. I love the freedom and creativity in his playing. He uses the whole range of the cello and moves between lyrical, free playing and groove with ease, something I strive to do in my own work. He’s definitely a cellist I wish not only more cellists knew about, but also more people in general.

I cannot think of a richer, more subtle yet complex work for violin and cello than Ravel’s duo sonata. It is truly a symphonic work for two instruments. Ravel was the painter of sounds. His musical language was a true expression of his native tongue, in search of its most precise and delicate colors. This work is music stripped to the bone, and a fascinating journey to the Paris of the 1920s. The first movement is particularly graceful and fluid. It is the dance of an inseparable couple.

I love the cello. My brother was a concert cellist, and I wrote my “Paganini Variations” for him. Although my favorite work for the instrument is Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, the most moving musical experience I have ever had was at the BBC Proms. It was the night Mstislav Rostropovich played the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Soviet State Symphony Orchestra on the day Russia invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. While demonstrators chanted outside the hall, Rostropovich’s tears poured down as he played this most deeply nationalistic of Dvorak’s works. The closing minutes will forever remain with me.

It’s often said that the cello resembles the human voice — in range and in timbre. But its sonic possibilities are so much vaster. For example, Kaija Saariaho’s “Sept Papillons,” a 2000 set of solo miniatures played here by Wilhelmina Smith, treats cello technique as metaphor: Harmonics and “sul ponticello” bow movements evoke the butterflies of the title, soft-spoken and fluttering.

From the very earliest days of my love of music, Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata has haunted me as one of the most profound and ethereal pieces ever written. As a cellist, simplicity, true beauty and a sense of tonal perfection are the greatest challenges, and this work demands all three. Add to that the unique relationship between Mstislav Rostropovich, possibly the greatest cellist who has ever lived, and Benjamin Britten, one of the great composers and pianists of the 20th century. In the opening minutes, they make the world stand still, and one almost has to stop breathing. Their partnership was an extraordinary one, such that, after Britten died, Rostropovich never played this piece again — he felt he could not do it with any other pianist.

I don’t even like Elgar’s constantly trotted out cello concerto that much! But when I was 7 or 8 and starting to learn the instrument, nothing entranced me more than the magisterial opening, played by Jacqueline du Pré as she played everything: like each fiery note was a matter of life or death, a prophecy. This couple of minutes made me want to be a cellist.

The composer and trombonist George Lewis is well known for his improvisations, but “Not Alone,” his 2015 piece for cello and electronics, is strictly notated. As performed by Seth Parker Woods, the acoustic part is often sinewy and percussive — qualities that help Mr. Woods’s playing blend in with the transformations created by the software, which uses what Mr. Lewis calls “interactive digital delays, space and timbre transformation” in a work that he dedicated to Abdul Wadud.

I love the Bach suites because there is a world within them. There is something very special about the sound and range of color a solo cello can have. I’m always amazed at how Bach is able to create the illusion of many different voices happening at the same time with just one instrument, with implied bass lines and the conversational nature of the music. It’s also such natural music in the way it rises and falls like speech. I return to these works time and again: for inspiration, solace, joy, everything.

I can think of nothing more beautiful than Fauré’s famous “Élégie” for cello and piano. It is both instantly appealing and profoundly felt. The painful beauty of the main theme is balanced by the angelically comforting second theme; it can bring tears to one’s eyes while also being uplifting. Like all great pieces of classical music, it can be appreciated on multiple levels, and will affect each listener in a deeply personal way.

In performance, the cellist and pianist must have the ability not only to tap into the more obvious passionate and sweet qualities of the music, but also to bring out the myriad subtle shades of nobility, reflection, sorrow. Steven Isserlis does justice to Fauré’s treasure with the pianist Pascal Devoyon.

In Verdi’s opera “Don Carlo,” Philip II of Spain is a tyrant. But in a scene of Shakespearean empathy, Verdi shows us the aging king alone, vulnerable and heartbroken that he is unable to win the heart of the queen he forced into marriage.

A series of stern repeated chords stands for the self-built cage of rules and machinations that has trapped Philip. The sound of the cello cuts in like a pang of guilt, then tumbles down in wistful figures, becoming the voice of his conscience and delivering a recitative of grizzled remorse and tenderness. Fragments of questioning phrases finally build to a yearning melody as the instrument delivers an inner monologue so vivid and nuanced that, by the time the king begins to sing, the listener sees him in a newly sympathetic light.

How about the opening of Wagner’s “Die Walküre”? It starts with one of the most striking cello lines in the repertory: a terrifying depiction of a storm that represents the emotional and metaphysical turmoil that will ultimately only be resolved with destruction and rebirth.

I love the visceral nature of this music, how it uses minimalist techniques and what you might call rock ’n’ roll rhythmic pounding to draw the listener into the story. For me it is intoxicating and totally seductive; perhaps it can be for others, as well.

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