Composing masterful pieces for the cello requires a thorough understanding of the unique nature of the instrument’s tuning.
Not to mention finding a way to navigate the issue of projection, given that this instrument speaks more or less in a human voice.
Nevertheless, we have composers who overcame these challenges, giving us the best cello concertos that we simply cannot get enough of.
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Best Cello Concertos of All Time
1. Antonín Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B Minor
Having premiered in London in 1896, the cello concerto in B minor by Dvořák may as well be one of the greatest works ever for cello and orchestra.
Not only is this piece rich in orchestral music, but it is also admired for the lyrical writing for the cello. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that it has come to be one of the most frequently performed of all cello concertos.
The overall tone in this work is melancholy, so it’s no surprise that this concerto is profoundly expressive, going through powerful moods right from the first movement.
The second movement develops a sumptuous melody on the cello, making ideal use of all the different sounds this instrument is capable of.
Ultimately this is one of the best cello pieces if you are looking for something that splendidly showcases the cello’s ability as a solo instrument.
Here’s a little fun fact for you: after working on this masterpiece, Dvořák never wrote any other concerto!
2. Joseph Haydn: Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major
Franz Joseph Haydn has always been recognized as an extremely prolific composer who played a pivotal role in developing classical music during the 18th century.
Although Haydn wrote cello concerto No. 1 in C major in his much earlier years, his mastery of instrumental writing still shines through in this piece. So much such that this concerto has, in modern times, become a staple of the cello repertoire.
Intent on stretching the instrument’s boundaries, the cello part in this piece opens on a quadruple stop, which is essentially a chord that involves all four strings. After that, the solo cello part goes on to be thoroughly idiomatic.
All three movements of this piece are written in sonata form giving rise to an exceptional piece that’s thoroughly upbeat and wonderfully complex.
3. Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto in E Minor
First performed in 1919, cello concerto in E minor was Elgar’s last notable work.
The overall somber tone of this cello piece is contemplative and elegiac, which is befitting, seeing as the work was written in the aftermath of World War I.
Unlike other composers’ works that typically have three movements, this concerto has four movements, all wrapped up in an intriguing 30-minute performance.
Initially, this concerto did not receive much recognition – even its premier in 1919 was an utter disaster.
It wasn’t until Jacqueline du Pré’s recording in 1965 that the piece really rose to prominence. This piece went on to become the most performed concerto globally, second only to Dvořák’s.
4. Luigi Boccherini: Cello Concerto No. 9 in B-flat Major
Boccherini has a few amazing works that fully exploited the cellos’ technical and sonic capabilities. Featuring double stops and brilliant runs in the highest register, cello concerto No. 9 is an example of the composer’s masterful pieces.
In fact, this is Boccherini’s most popular concerti, and once you experience the exceptional elegance and charm of this cello music, it won’t be hard to see why.
From richly expressive themes in the first movement that evolve into melancholic poetry in the second movement, this piece crowns it all in light, pure energy in the final movement.
Employing the instrument’s full 4+ octave range, the creative orchestration and phrasing in this cello sonata are undeniable.
5. Johann Sebastian Bach: Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major
Among the vast canon of Bach’s amazing works is a series of six cello suites composed in the early 1700s. Three centuries later, these suites remain as some of the best cello solos in the world of classical music.
The first cello suite is undoubtedly the most widely heard piece of cello music in this contemporary age, commonly featuring in film and commercials.
This particular suite is famous for its prelude, where you have a constant cascade of arpeggios connected with slurs. The piece truly shows how fluid a solo cello can sound.
Uniquely, all the six suites for unaccompanied cello feature six movements perfectly outlined in a harmonic motion that’s their most affective quality. Overall, these suites hold a special place in the repertoire of both the listener and the performer.
6. Robert Schumann: Cello Concerto in A Minor
Schumann was a well-respected Romantic composer with an impressive repertoire under his belt. However, the cello concerto in A minor was Schumann’s only cello concerto, and the piece didn’t get much recognition until long after the composer’s death.
The piece is quite technically demanding, but it prioritizes poetic expression over the virtuosic display. This is evident in the romantic quality of the piece, where you have emotional depth and enduring appeal.
The work has an overall brooding tonality, whereby right from the onset, you are gripped by the long, enchanting melody played by the soloist.
All three movements are linked together without pause, and the work culminates in a thrilling conclusion with the cello playing an accompanied cadenza which is quite unconventional.
7. Camille Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor
First performed in 1873 at the Paris Conservatoire concert, the first cello concerto has long been one of the most famous works by Saint-Saëns.
Regarded as one of the most exceptional musical prodigies in the history of Western music, Saint-Saëns was a highly gifted pianist praised for his prowess at piano improvisations.
This element is evident in the opening of the first cello concerto, whereby all you have is a single dramatic chord, then the cellist plays a series of virtuosic passages. It goes against the norm whereby these compositions typically start with an introduction from the orchestra before the solo cello chimes in.
The piece is structured in one continuous movement but broken into three sections structured as fast-slow-fast, with frantic ascending and descending sequences, culminating in a wonderfully carefree coda.
8. Dmitri Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major
Shostakovich may as well go down in history as the greatest symphonist of the Twentieth Century, seeing as his works are unequaled in scope, quantity, and quality.
Employing a progressive and eclectic style, this composer always prioritized his artistic integrity to the extent that he was officially admonished on two occasions for failing to be ideologically pure.
Composed in 1959, the violoncello concerto No. 1 inerrantly combines powerful musicality with impressive virtuoso writing for the solo cello.
Designed to amply demonstrate the abilities of the legendary Mstislav Rostropovich, this piece comprises a multitude of runs, stopped, and natural harmonics double stops in difficult thumb positions and left-hand pizzicato.
Nevertheless, aside from the virtuosic aspect, this work is pretty simple in form while still impressively making such a powerful utterance.
9. William Walton: Cello Concerto
Following his viola concerto in 1929 and his violin concerto in 1939, the cello concerto, commissioned in 1957, was Walton’s third and last composition for string instruments.
While conventional concertos start with a brisk opening followed by a slower movement, this particular piece has a moderately paced opening, followed by a much quicker scherzo in the middle movement.
The scherzo is brilliant and impassioned, having soaring melodies that interweave with the virtuosity.
This piece is a deeply romantic work, and though well-constructed, it was regarded as too old-fashioned for its time.
Nevertheless, the concerto was taken up by cellists worldwide, including the legendary Yo-Yo Ma, who executed the work with impressive lyricism.
FAQs About Best Cello Concertos
What Is The Most Difficult Cello Concerto?
Regarding standard repertoire, the most difficult cello concerto is Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante.
The second movement of this fast-paced piece is particularly challenging to execute. Being technically demanding, there are virtually no resting points in this movement, meaning you’d need a great deal of endurance to get through it.
Who Is The Best Living Cellist?
- Yo-Yo Ma
Yo-Yo Ma is the best living cellist because he is the most distinguished cellist today. Not only is he the most well-known classical performer of all time, but this American cellist is also the most successful, performing on the soundtracks in many popular movies.
- Steven Isserlis
Steven Isserlis is a distinguished British cellist acclaimed for his profound musicianship. His diverse repertoire has a particularly distinctive sound which results from his use of gut strings.
Like the best cello songs, the best cello concertos are emotive and deeply moving.
Whether it’s a romantic piece, an elegiac, or one with religious connotations, just listen keenly, and you can hear the themes and subliminal tones even without a single word having been spoken.
Nothing beats the beautiful arrangement and balance of a solo cello.