Essential Historical Recordings: The Larger-Than-Life Cellist Gregor Piatigorsky

For several decades in the mid-twentieth century, Piatigorsky was the cello’s greatest international star.

By Sasha Margolis

Cellist Gregor Piatigorsky was larger than life, a giant of a man whose personality was gigantic, too. A warm, deeply expressive musician, Piatigorsky was possessed of a glorious low-register sound, great rhythmic gusto, and a musical imagination that led him to explore the subtlest shades of articulation. Tall enough that he made his instrument look like a toy (he could even pick it up and play it like a violin), Piatigorsky followed Emanuel Feuermann’s lead in taking cello technique to dazzling new heights. In addition to extraordinary general facility, his technical attributes included a violinistic ability to play octaves, and crackling up-bow and down-bow staccati. He was also an urbane and charismatic man who married a Rothschild, kept paintings by Picasso and Matisse in his studio, and could be as convincing with words as with his cello. For several decades in the mid-twentieth century, he was the cello’s greatest international star.

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Born in Ukraine in 1903, Piatigorsky began studies in Moscow a few years before the Revolution. At a precocious fifteen, a year after the Revolution, he was appointed principal cellist of the Bolshoi Opera and member of the First State String Quartet. After being forbidden exit from Russia to study abroad, he escaped into Poland, then landed in Germany, where at twenty-one he was appointed principal of the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwängler. Four years later, he opted to concentrate on a solo career, and in 1939 moved to the U.S., where he would give countless concerts in all manner of venues, grand and humble, including playing the first cello recital at the White House.


Along the way, Piatigorsky performed in piano trios with first Carl Flesch and Artur Schnabel, then Nathan Milstein and Vladimir Horowitz, and finally Jascha Heifetz and Artur Rubinstein. He played an indispensable role in the legendary Heifetz-Piatigorsky chamber-music concerts in Los Angeles and New York. In the area of new music, he commissioned the Walton Concerto, premiered the Sonata and Concerto of Hindemith, and made the first recording of the Shostakovich Sonata. Piatigorsky was also a devoted teacher, with positions at Curtis, UCLA, Tanglewood, Boston University, and USC. In his own playing, he was to a large extent self-taught, claiming as his greatest influence the great Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin. An ever-searching musician, Piatigorsky believed that “the better you become… the music moves higher, so it becomes unreachable.”

Piatigorsky was a brilliant raconteur, with plenty of real-life stories to use as raw material for his imaginative powers. There was the time when, at fifteen, he objected to a proposed renaming of the First State String Quartet after Lenin (he preferred the name Beethoven) and soon found himself locked in an intense discussion of the subject with Lenin himself. Then, there was the daring escape into Poland, across a river, under Soviet gunfire, during the course of which he had to run through the water, cello held aloft, with a substantial soprano fellow escapee clinging to his back. Piatigorsky even wrote a novel, in English, long neglected and published only this year: Mr. Blok, about which his son Yoram has written: “I recognize Blok as a tormented fantasy of Papa, an original anti-hero bursting with ambition, flipping back and forth between exuberant inspiration and waves of sadness verging on despair…”


Walton Cello Concerto with Münch and the Boston Symphony

Piatigorsky died of lung cancer in 1976. But his musical imagination and wide emotional range can still be heard today in his many wonderful recordings. Perhaps greatest among his concerti was the Walton. A performance with Münch and the Boston Symphony is tonally enthralling throughout, ranging from full-throated eloquence to a kind of gentle musical caressing. Another highlight is Strauss’ Don Quixote, also recorded with Münch and Boston: When Strauss heard Piatigorsky play it in Berlin, he exclaimed, “I have finally heard my Don Quixote as I thought him to be.” Piatigorsky’s rich tone and ability to express over a wide emotional gamut are also perfectly suited to Bloch’s Schelomo (again with Münch and Boston).

Shostakovich Cello Sonata op. 40 with Valentin Pavlovsky at the piano

The historic Shostakovich Sonata recording, with Valentin Pavlovsky at the piano, boasts some of Piatigorsky’s most compelling playing, alternately songful and sharply etched, hauntingly shaped in the Largo, and marvelously characterful in the Finale. The Brahms E minor Sonata with Rubinstein demonstrates his gorgeous low-register sound and ruminative patience, and in the Scherzo, more of his characterful rhythmic playing. Recordings from the Heifetz-Piatigorsky concerts boast myriad great cello moments. Among the most beautiful is the Andante of the Brahms C minor Piano Quartet, played with William Primrose and Jacob Lateiner.


Piatigorsky’s stupendous technique is shown off in his own twenty-fourth caprice-inspired “Variations on a Paganini theme,” recorded live with the NBC Symphony under Voorhees. Other recordings of shorter works include wonderfully subtle and sensitive Schumann Fantasiestücke, played with pianist Ralph Berkowitz, a bewitching and impassioned Granados “Orientale,” and a vibrantly soulful Sostenuto ed espressivo from Busoni’s Kleine Suite.

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