April 05, 2013
When Saint-Saëns wanted to depict in music the stately progress of a swan, he called on the serene legato of the cello, the most dignified of all string instruments. In their playing, all cellists are able to produce this beautiful effect. But some of the greatest players are also able to communicate the eruptive, almost stormy side of their characters.
Think of Pablo Casals, the first truly modern cellist, who for almost a century fulminated against tyranny, the complacent and the routine. Think, too, of Paul Tortelier, who had the lean, ascetic look of an El Greco saint, yet possessed the turbulent idealism of Don Quixote, whom he portrayed so memorably in Richard Strauss’s tone poem. It was no surprise when, at the height of his career, Tortelier went off for a year to live and work on an Israeli kibbutz. As a cellist he could be as ‘swan-like’ as the rest of them, but he could also launch himself with great rhythmic energy to steer the frail craft of his cello through the rapids of one of the masterpieces of the cello repertoire.
Tortelier was born in Paris in 1914, months before the outbreak of the Great War. Though the family knew poverty, it was his mother’s dream that her son should be a cellist. He started to learn the instrument at the age of six and three years later became a pupil of Louis Feuillard. At 12 he entered Feuillard’s class at the Paris Conservatoire and when he graduated to Gérard Hekking’s class he had already won a premier prix. He won another (for a performance of Elgar’s Concerto) before leaving at 16 to play freelance in cafés and cinemas (in the days of silent movies, every picture house had its musicians). A year later he made his professional debut playing Lalo’s Concerto at the Concerts Lamoureux. At his mother’s urging, Tortelier returned to the Conservatoire to study composition with Jean Gallon and to carry off yet another premier prix. By this time the ‘talkies’ had come, blocking one avenue of employment, but other opportunities – freelance work in the Parisian orchestras – were now open to him.
In 1935 he went to the Monte-Carlo Orchestra as principal cellist and two years later played Don Quixote under Strauss’s own direction. That year he moved to America, where he was one of many French players in Serge Koussevitzky’s Boston Symphony Orchestra. Moving back to Paris in 1939, he suffered more lean times, refusing to compromise with the occupying Germans, but he emerged at the end of the war fully ready for the fine career that lay ahead. Under Sir Thomas Beecham, he played the Concerto by his friend Jean Hubeau in Amsterdam and this led to an invitation to play Don Quixote in Beecham’s Richard Strauss festival in London in 1947. The composer was present and praised the young cellist’s interpretation, which was recorded soon afterwards. With his solo career established, Tortelier never looked back. For most of his recording career, Tortelier was associated with EMI.
Paul Tortelier died suddenly in 1990, in his late 70s but still in possession of all his faculties. Already he is part of history and most music-lovers under the age of 30 will never have heard him in the flesh. It is all the more important, then, that his recordings should be available and that those of us who did experience the frisson he created in his prime should bear witness to his achievements. Here was a musician who always gave freely of his vibrant, uniquely human tone and his limitless spirit.