Essential Historical Recordings: Pierre Fournier’s Envious Cello Mastery

By Sasha Margolis

Pierre Fournier (1906–86), known as “the aristocrat of cellists,” was among the twentieth century’s most wonderful string artists. A musician of unlimited elegance and bottomless depth, Fournier was famed for a pure and gorgeous sound which, thanks to his crystal-clear tonal concept, he could produce even upon inferior instruments. His bow-arm was the envy of many another cellist, including his younger French colleague Paul Tortelier (whose left hand was, in turn, the object of Fournier’s admiration). Fournier’s art was well summed up on the occasion of his 1948 US debut, when composer-critic Virgil Thomson wrote: “I do not know his superior among living cellists, and there are few who can equal him either for technical mastery or for musical taste. Some play louder, many exploit a more obvious sentiment. I do not know any who give one more profoundly the feeling of having been present at music making.” Fournier partnered regularly with the greatest violinists, pianists, and conductors of his day. But he did some of his greatest playing in the solo works of Bach.

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He was born in Paris, the son of a general. His first music lessons were with his mother, on the piano. But when a case of polio at age nine left him unable to pedal effectively, he switched to cello. He graduated from the Paris Conservatoire in 1923, and the same year, cello soloist Maurice Maréchal called him “the cellist of the future.” A European career steadily developed, with Fournier playing as soloist, and as chamber musician with luminaries such as violinist Jacques Thibaud and pianist Alfred Cortot. During World War II, he remained in Paris, and made eighty-two lucrative appearances on a German-run radio station. As a result, in 1949, the French musicians’ union disciplined him with a six-month ban, for collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps out of contrition, Fournier later refused to perform in the Soviet Union, saying, “I have too many Jewish friends to agree to play in a country with an official policy of anti-Jewish discrimination.” 


Fournier performed nearly till his death. Along the way, he made a huge number of magnificent recordings. Highly prized among aficionados is his solo Bach, always simple, logical, and natural, never indulgent or tortured. Fournier’s Dvořák Concerto with Szell and Berlin is considered by many to be the greatest recording of the work. One of David Oistrakh’s favorite recordings was his Brahms Double with the Frenchman—a friendly clash of titans (accompanied by Galliera and the Philharmonia.) Concertos Fournier didn’t play beautifully don’t exist, but he seemed to particularly elevate such French works as the Lalo (with Martinon and the Lamoureux Orchestra) and the Saint-Saëns (with Wallenstein and Berlin.) He recorded Strauss’ Don Quixote several times, including with Karajan. The version with Szell and Cleveland, featuring a heartbreaking portrayal of Quixote’s death, may be the best. 


Fournier was a natural chamber musician and master of intimate detail. His Schubert playing was extraordinary. He recorded a delightful Arpeggione with Jean Hubeau, and his artistry in slow movements from the trios in E-flat major (with Szeryng and Rubinstein) and B-flat Major (with Grumiaux and Magaloff) is worthy of the greatest lieder singers. Fournier recorded a good deal with pianist Artur Schnabel, whose predilection for urgent tempi seemed to draw from the cellist a particular rhythmic suppleness, to go along with his innate eloquence and directness. Examples include their complete Beethoven sonatas, and a Brahms B Major Trio with Szigeti. Fournier also recorded complete Beethoven sonata collections with Wilhelm Kempff and Friedrich Gulda; listeners on the lookout for simply beautiful cello-playing, beautifully recorded, may favor the Gulda set. In other gems of the cello-piano repertoire: a live recording of the Debussy Sonata with Franz Holetschek is slightly imperfect in a live-performance manner, but rich in pride and melancholy. Fournier’s tone ranges from gorgeously heroic to exquisitely personal in Brahms’ F Major Sonata with Rudolf Firkušný. And playing with Babeth Leonet, the great cellist perfectly realizes every subtle emotional shift in Schumann’s Fantasiestücke. Finally, Fournier is deeply affecting in the Fauré Elegy, and glidingly buoyant in Saint-Saëns’ Swan.

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