Here are six more cello concertos a cellist should have in their repertoire.
Robert Schumann studied the cello as a youngster and although he was unable to continue due to an injury to his right hand he developed a deep affinity to the instrument. Schumann’s Cello Concerto departs from traditional structure. Initially intended as a “Conzertstück”, each of the three movements meld seamlessly into the next. Perhaps the structure is due to Schumann’s aversion to interruptions from the audience. In any case the work breaks with tradition.
Written late in his life, it is deeply lyrical, almost enigmatic and mystical in its sparse use of thematic material, which returns throughout the piece. It is best regarded as a one large-movement work. Two unusual features of this concerto are the gorgeous cello duo with the soloist and principal cello—some say it represents a conversation with Schumann’s wife Clara—and the accompanied cadenza in the finale, unusual writing for its day. Its orchestration is fairly light to avoid overshadowing the professional cello solo. According to scholars, Schumann’s musical ideas were always intentional. He had a fascination with musical codes or cryptography and included hidden messages in his music. Deliberately irregular phrase structure and idiosyncratic metronome markings—the first movement (130) quite fast, and the slow movement (63) not too slow, and the indication of the last movement ‘Sehr Lebhaft’ (114) very fast—are still oftentimes misunderstood by some cellists. The last movement does not flaunt technical virtuosity. Schumann repeats a six-note pattern, but it is important to pay attention to the uneven lengths of phrases and play these more melodically, lightly, and playfully, instead of reiterating the pattern mechanically and too fast.
Although it took many years to become part of the repertoire, the concerto is today one of the most beloved, featuring the deep brooding and the tenderness only the cello can communicate so effectively.
Schumann: Cello Concerto (Janos Starker)
The next two programmatic works have unusual relevance.
Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote is not a concerto per se. It is a tone poem written in a theme and variations style, and is one of the most thrilling and gorgeous cello solo works in the repertoire. Originally intended to be performed by the principal cello from his or her orchestra seat, many soloists play the work. The cello soloist is called upon to manifest tremendous technical and emotional finesse in order to impersonate the complex character who is at times courageous and noble, anguished and agitated, or graceful and bewildered.
Strauss stretches the abilities of the cellist deploying unconventional techniques with glorious melodies, unusual meters, muted passages, fast triplets and scale passages, and death-defying leaps into the highest registers. While each variation is titled to hint at Don Quixote’s escapades, it is important to be familiar with Cervantes’s book to understand the depth and profundity of the story, and to be able to convey this to the audience. For example, the solo cello’s last quiver as Don Quixote dies, sliding slowly down the lowest string of the cello, ending in a haunting pianissimo, clings to hope for humanity, a metaphor for our struggles on this earth. Don Quixote is an extraordinary piece to play as well as to listen to. The cello is exquisitely suited to depict the character that continues to touch our hearts and inspire us toward making this a better world.
Richard Strauss: Don Quixote (Alban Gerhardt)
Saint-Saëns wrote his Cello Concerto in A minor in 1872 for the French cellist Auguste Tolbecque, who also played the premier. The work is in one movement, which was unconventional at the time, relatively short, but with three evident sections. It is well-balanced and transparent, and is often chosen as one of a cellists’ first concertos. It is beautiful and must be pristine, gentle and dance-like in the slow movement, and played with drama in the last movement.