Ten of our favourite pieces of classical music for the cello
The cello is a gorgeous stringed instrument, its rich, low tone ideally suited to some of classical music’s most soulful pieces. Here is our pick of some of the best works written for cello.
Best cello music
Elgar: Cello Concerto, Adagio
Elgar’s Cello Concerto is one of the most famous works in the cello repertoire and one of the best cello concertos of all time. It was one of Elgar’s later works, composed in 1919, after having agreed many years before that he would write such a concerto.
Jacqueline du Pré’s elegiac rendition of this movement remains the most notable recording of the work to date. Recorded in 1965, du Pré’s interpretation was so popular that her teacher Mstislav Rostropovich removed the work from his own repertoire. Elgar’s use of rich, evocative melodies and minimal orchestral backing generates a sense of melancholy that lasts throughout the movement.
We named Jacqueline du Pré one of the greatest cellists of all time
Elgar Cello Concerto: Recommended recording
Jacqueline du Pré (cello); LSO/John Barbirolli (1965)
EMI 965 9322
Saint-Saëns: ‘The Swan’ from Carnival of the Animals
A highlight of Saint-Saëns’s compositional output, The Carnival of the Animals is a suite made up of 14 short movements, each representing a different animal. It received its premiere performance at private concert in 1886, but Saint-Saëns specified that the work should be published posthumously, so the first public performance wasn’t given until 1922.
- Best classical music for beginners
This penultimate movement is particularly well known, having now become a staple of the cello repertoire. This dreamlike work carries the cello through interwoven major and minor phrases backed by recurring broken chords on the piano.
Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals: Recommended recording
Güher & Süher Pekinel (piano), Radio France PO/Marek Janowski (1990)
Warner Apex 25646 21252
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Schubert: Sonata in A Minor for Arpeggione and Piano (transcribed for cello)
This sonata from Schubert is a challenge for cellists as its melody is transcribed from a part initially written for the six-string Arpeggione – a bowed guitar which fell out of use soon after its invention due to its lack of a distinct orchestral role.
However, those who master the piece provide an exquisite listening experience as they guide the audience through a map of gentle yet demandingly technical phrases interspersed with indulgent, sustained notes which dominate the Adagio movement.
Schubert ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata: Recommended recording
Steven Isserlis (cello), Dénes Várjon (piano)
Hyperion CDA 68227
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Bach: Cello Suite No. 1, Prelude
No list of top cello works would be complete without Bach’s First Cello Suite. As a solo piece of average difficulty, this work provides an ideal platform for intermediate-level cellists to grapple with one of the greats, if not the great, in timeless cello music.
Bach Cello Suite No. 1: Recommended recording
Pablo Casals (cello) (1936-9)
EMI 965 9212
Debussy: Cello Sonata
Composed in 1915, the Sonata for Cello and Piano is one of Claude Debussy‘s (1862-1918) last and most experimental works.
Debussy had planned to compose a set of six sonatas for various instruments, but by the time of his death only three were completed: one for flute, viola and harp, one for violin and piano, and this one for cello and piano. He’d done very well though, as these three are all gripping, beautiful works, the cello sonata perhaps most of all.
The opening movement is dramatic, urgent in places, and has the cello at times prowling restlessly around its lower register, before bursting into a moment of release higher up.
The middle movement (Sérénade) has some thrilling Spanish sonorities – as the cello is plucked and teased we find ourselves sheltering from the midday sun in some sultry Andalusian square. The Finale, meanwhile, is all nervous energy, with that tumbling then rising melody, by turns wistful and joyous. Très bien (or should we say ‘muy bien’), Claude!