By Sasha Margolis
Cellist Paul Tortelier was a magnetic performer, an innovative technician, a fascinating human being—and one of the string giants of his era. Born in 1914, he was about a decade younger than fellow cellists Gregor Piatigorsky and Pierre Fournier, and about a decade older than Janos Starker and Mstislav Rostropovich. He could hold his own with any of them.
Tortelier was a product of the Paris Conservatoire, studying cello there with Louis Feuillard and Gérard Hekking, while also tying for a first prize in theory with fellow student and future composing great Henri Dutilleux. A succession of principal cellist positions followed: Tortelier played with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony under Koussevitsky, and in orchestras in Paris and London. After World War II, he established an active solo career, especially in Europe. In the 1950s, he enjoyed the signal honor of playing principal at Pablo Casals’ festival in the French village of Prades, also performing chamber music there with fellow artists including Szigeti, Stern, and Grumiaux.
Tortelier was an extraordinary musician. Blessed with subtle and spontaneous rhythmic instincts, he was also committed to the idea that performance should be a theatrical endeavor. His technical facility was remarkable, and his tone beautiful and deeply human. Tone and facility alike were aided by the bent endpin he invented, which places the cello at a more horizontal angle than is traditional, and which was later adopted by Rostropovich and others. Tortelier was also the rare cellist perfectly comfortable using his pinky in thumb position.
A highly cultured man, Tortelier was a brilliant raconteur. He was also an active composer, producing many works for cello, and several devoted to world peace. His political passions were pronounced—and he didn’t mind if they got in the way of his performing career. Inspired by the foundation of the state of Israel, the non-Jewish Frenchman spent a year living and working on a kibbutz there—which took him away from Prades. Troubled by the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he refused to tour America for the duration of the war, only returning, to great acclaim, in the 1980s. He died in 1990, of a heart attack.
Tortelier spent a good deal of time in front of the microphone. His recordings extend to most corners of the cello repertoire, though he never took up the major works of Prokofiev and Britten, and he recorded multiple versions of many pieces. He is perhaps most closely identified with Don Quixote. Even physically, Tortelier seemed to embody Cervantes’ title character: just like the Knight of the Mournful Countenance, he was tall and gaunt. In the 1930s, he played the solos in Strauss’ Cervantes-inspired tone poem with the composer conducting. He would go on to record the piece three times. His second rendition, made in 1958 with Rudolf Kempe conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, may be the greatest. Tortelier portrays Quixote with all the rhythmic imagination, dynamic variety, fantasy, drama, and pathos that the work demands.
Each day of his adulthood, Tortelier practiced solo Bach. Over the course of a lifetime, he developed strong and idiosyncratic ideas on Bach interpretation, treating each suite as a cohesive whole, and attempting to steer clear of both excessive romanticism and excessive abstraction. He recorded the complete Suites twice in the studio, and himself strongly preferred his later 1982 version, which features tempo extremes—slow slow movements and fast fast movements—and a flexible rhythmic attitude.
Among concertos, the Elgar was a Tortelier specialty. He won first prize in cello at the Paris Conservatoire with it at age sixteen, when it was still a new piece. He would go on to make three studio recordings, pairing most successfully with Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony in 1972. His interpretation shares none of Jacqueline du Pré’s extroverted approach, although she spent time as his student. Tortelier’s is a more stoic, quietly sorrowful Elgar.
A 1973 Paganini “Moses” Fantasy, with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Tortelier’s cellist wife Maud, displays the technical benefits of the bent endpin. A 1955 Schubert Quintet recording with Casals, Stern, Sascha Schneider, and Milton Katims captures a great moment from Prades.
Finally, and unsurprisingly, Tortelier was known for his way with French repertoire. A youthful recording of the Debussy Sonata with an impulsive Gerald Moore at the piano is riveting in its spontaneity and its kaleidoscopic array of subtly different moods. His Ravel “Pièce en forme de Habanera” is haunting, each phrase played with profound expression and total commitment.
Check in next Friday for another installment in the “Essential Historical Recordings” series by Sasha Margolis.
Please note the above are affiliate links, meaning Strings will earn a small commission (at no cost to you) when you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for your support!