In the 20th century, the technique of playing the cello has greatly improved. Various cello schools have developed, and the result is a large number of great cellists we have today.
Yo-Yo Ma is probably the most famous and one of the greatest living cellists today. He started performing in front of an audience at just five years old, and by the time he was seven he had performed in front of President John F. Kennedy.
In addition to a career in classical music for more than 60 years, Yo-Yo Ma is an artist who is constantly working to popularizing different music and connecting different cultures.
On his site, you can see numerous projects that include travel and playing in unusual locations, collaborations with various artists and locals.
“Music, like all of the culture, helps us to understand our environment, each other, and ourselves. Yo-Yo Ma once said, “Culture helps us to imagine a better future. Culture helps turn ‘them’ into ‘us’. And these things have never been more important“.
You can see more on his YouTube channel, and one example is the short film “Antarctica: Life Emerging” filmed for the occasion of World Oceans Day.
Another artist who certainly belongs to the category of greatest living cellists is Soviet-born Israeli cellist Mischa Maisky.
He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in the Rostropovich class, who described him as follows – “… one of the most outstanding talents of the younger generation of cellists. His playing combines poetry and exquisite delicacy with great temperament and brilliant technique.“
He started his career as a prizewinner at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and since then his rich artistic path has continued.
Even today, at the age of 73, he has an active solo career and currently lives in Belgium.
You can find many of his recordings on the internet, and one of the most famous is Bach Suite No.1.
Steven Isserlis is a true representative of the modern cellist who is dedicated to a solo career but is also a chamber musician, educator, and author.
He is dedicated to playing and learning contemporary works, which he performs quite often. He is also extremely dedicated to studying historical performance and giving recitals with piano and harpsichord.
Another of his passions is playing and writing for children, so far he has published several books dedicated to children, including Why Beethoven Threw the Stew: And Lots More Stories about the Lives of Great Composers (link to Amazon).
He often works with young musicians. You can listen to one of the masterclasses on YouTube.
Julian Lloyd Webber
Julian Lloyd Webber is one of the great contemporary cellists who unfortunately no longer plays actively because of a herniated disc in his neck but he is still present on the music scene through pedagogical work.
He was born into a musical family and his brother is a composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. At the age of 16, he received a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London and after that, he continued his studies with Pierre Fournier in Geneva.
He premiered 50 works during his 42-year career, and in 1985 he published a book and CD called Travels With My Cello in which he wanted to bring the world of cello closer to a much wider audience through anecdotes.
He played at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics and had his farewell performance in May 2014 at Great Malvern.
You can listen to the powerful and touching version of Faure’s Elegie in its performance at the following link: Julian Lloyd Webber plays Faure’s Elegy.
Natalia Gutman is often referred to by the audience as the “Queen of the Cello”, so a list of the greatest living cellists is impossible without her.
After graduating from the Moscow Conservatory, she went on to postgraduate studies in Leningrad with the famous Mstislav Rostropovich, who then invited her to become part of the pedagogical staff at the Moscow Conservatory.
Since the 1960s, she has performed at various competitions: Vienna Youth Festival, International Dvorak Competition, Tchaikovsky Competition, and won awards in all of them.
Today she teaches at the Moscow Conservatory, at the Private University of Vienna, and at the Scuola di Musica di Fiesole.
She also holds many masterclasses around the world in addition to her active solo career.
She often performed with Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter playing chamber music with one of the performances being the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio, Op.50.
Gautier Capuçon is a famous French cellist who has a very active career as a soloist, but also as a chamber musician and lecturer.
He is dedicated to researching the cello repertoire, and almost every season his repertoire includes works by contemporary composers.
He is the founder and leader of the “Classe d’Excellence de Violoncelle” together with the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, where every year the most talented young cellists work intensively together for one week.
In addition, he is the ambassador of the Orchestre à l’École Association, which brings classical music closer to more than 40,000 children in France.
In addition to classical music, he often plays and covers artists from the past, such as Édith Piaf.
Truls Mørk is often described as one of the most emotional and greatest cellists in the world today. He certainly deserves those accolades for his deep understanding of music and the special connection he has with the instrument.
He grew up in Bergen in a musical family – his father was a cellist and his mother a pianist.
He is the first Scandinavian to enter the finals of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, and that happened in 1982.
A few years ago, he took a break from his professional career due to injury, but fortunately, he returned to concert activities both as a soloist and as a chamber musician.
Sol Gabetta is one of the most famous female cellists in the world. Today, she lives in Switzerland and has been teaching at the Basel Music Academy since 2005.
She speaks as many as six languages, and she started by playing the violin at the age of three and cello at the age of four.
The core of her artistic work is chamber music, which she often performs with colleagues at various festivals, especially in Europe.
In 2018, she received the Herbert von Karajan Prize at the Salzburg Easter Festival for her outstanding musical achievements.
Today she plays several Italian master instruments from the early 18th century, the most famous of which is Bonamy Dobree-Suggia by Antonio Stradivari from 1717.
Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 2 is unfortunately not performed that often, but you can listen to the last movement in an extremely virtuoso performance by Sol Gabetta.
Certainly, the youngest on this list is the Romanian cellist Andrei Ioniță, who has been building an excellent career in the last few years.
He attracted the attention of a wider audience by winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015 at the age of only 21, where he delighted the audience with his sincere performance full of emotions and beauty.
He’s performed a number of recitals in famous venues including Carnegie Hall, Konzerthaus Berlin, Elbphilharmonie and Zurich Tonhalle. He’s also performed with Valeriy Gergiev and Martha Argerich.
He is currently a scholarship holder of the Deutsche Stiftung Musikleben and plays the cello made by Giovanni Battista Rogeri from Brescia in 1671.
In the finals of the Tchaikovksy Competition, he performed the Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme and Shostakovich Cello Concerto No.1.
There are so many great cello players alive today that we could write a book, but this list will have to do for now.
Thanks to the advancement of technology, we can enjoy excellent audio and video recordings of all these artists, but also masterclasses and interviews through which each of us can hear and learn something new.