‘It's very close to the human voice'
Country Life UK|July 28, 2021
The four great cello concertos will feature in the same Proms season for the first time in history. Pippa Cuckson discovers why this mellow instrument evokes such emotion
Pippa Cuckson

THIS year’s BBC Proms provides an unexpected feast of cello music. It is the first time in 126 years that the four warhorses of the concerto repertoire—Elgar, Dvo ák, Saint-Saëns and Walton—have all been played in the same season, although, says Proms director David Pickard, the programming owes more to pandemic-related pragmatism than design. ‘These concertos seem to fit for the times we are in, because of the emotional languages they speak, but also the practicalities of social distancing,’ he explains. ‘The repertoire this year is dictated by the number of players on stage and it so happens all these concertos have manageable orchestral forces.

‘They are being performed by astonishing cellists from home and abroad,’ he adds. ‘We tend to think of the Elgar as quintessentially English and connected to Jacqueline du Pré, so to have it reflected back to us by someone who is German [Johannes Moser] will add another dimension.’

This happy accident of planning showcases the sheer range of this most beloved of stringed instruments and the fascinating links between current virtuosi and some of the past greats, whose memory is inevitably eclipsed by du Pré, Rostropovich and Tortelier.

The ‘happening’ young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason tackles the Dvo ák concerto. This Czech masterpiece has been performed 35 times at the Proms, although never more famously than in 1968 by Mstislav Rostropovich. By chance, it was the day after Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. The Russian orchestra was booed, although not ‘Slava’, who was in tears throughout. At the end, he held the score aloft, as if to show where his sympathies lay.

Comparisons are inevitable and there is keen interest in what magic Mr Kanneh-Mason can conjure from the 1700 Matteo Gofriller cello bought for him for last month by private investors. He says it has ‘an uncanny capacity to respond to—almost to anticipate—my style of playing’. There is a notion that stringed instruments absorb the character of previous players, although some find this fanciful.

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