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The 11 best cellists of today that you should know

In today’s times, the number of highly skilled cellists is enormous as well as the rapid and easy access we have to tons of excellent material from each of them has multiplied.

In this article, I’ll be introducing who I consider you should listen to if you’re looking to enjoy the best of the best and the reasons why I’ve chosen each one.

About me

I began studying music passionately when I was nine years old, and even today, almost 30 years later, I continue learning with the same infinite thirst.

Manuel Villar Lifac, writer at Higher Hz

I am a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and music producer, and I work in my own studio, mostly creating music for film. For many years now, the cello has been my primary tool.

Having had extensive classical training, during which I played in symphony orchestras with the best musicians in my country, as well as vast experience at the highest levels of performance in the realm of popular music, I find that what the cello offers me when producing music is simply perfect.

When I’m about to record and have to decide how to approach the piece, I usually refer to the best cellists I know because each one has their unique touch, and what better than having such a range to choose from when selecting a style?

The qualities of today’s best

There is a significant difference between discussing the greatest cellists of all time and discussing the best cellists of today. The reasons for their significance are different in many aspects.

The first of these is that usually, cellists who are considered the greatest of all time have transcended largely due to their own compositions, which have left one of the richest legacies possible to all future generations of cellists: the opportunity to interpret the works that today are the standard for all competitions, concerts, or recordings dedicated to this instrument.

Another difference is that the greatest cellists in history are also often recognized for their teaching, as they transcended through founding schools and defining the technical foundations that still endure.

Today, the best cellists have in common that they are masters both in the mastery of the classical works of their ancestors and in the technique inherited from their lineage.

There are many more who are seriously dedicated to the cello and compete to form the elite of the instrument.

The possibility of recording is a powerful tool for continuous refinement, and the technology we have today gives easy access to the best material from around the world.

Today’s best cellists have been nurtured in a context of superlative wealth and competitiveness, and currently, most of them are recognized thanks to the thousands of hours of recordings and footage that we can access instantly.

Finally, a common point between the current and previous generations is that something that has also given significance in some cases is their capacity for innovation and their ability to captivate the general public.

Some cellists on this list are not among the most virtuosic in the world, but they have managed to expand people’s love for the cello to new horizons.

The cello is not a very popular instrument, and most people cannot name a single cellist, so the merit of making the instrument more widely known and captivating crowds is enormous and is the reason why I have given them as much credit in this article as those who have developed their virtuosity to the fullest.

Mischa Maisky (born 1948)

Mischa Maisky
Mischa Maisky, Zelt-Musik-Festival 2016 | Photo: Michael Jörgens

It is impossible not to think of Mischa Maisky as one of the first on the list, as he is undoubtedly one of the first names that come to mind for most of us when naming the best.

Born in Latvia and a naturalized Israeli, he has trained with two of the greatest cellists of all time: Mstislav Rostropovich and Gregor Piatigorsky.

His style is one of the most romantic of today, and he stands out for his expressiveness, vibrato, and volume.

When I want to find a reference version to study some of the great works in cello history, it is common for me to want to see and hear how Mischa Maisky does it.

A clear example is the famous Cello Suites by J.S. Bach, pieces that Maisky plays with incredible mastery and ease, with the handling of tempos, expression, dynamics, and articulations characteristic of a completely unique version.

Watch this video of Mischa Maisky playing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1

Yo-Yo Ma (born 1955)

Yo-Yo Ma
Yo-Yo Ma in Davos, Switzerland | Photo: Andy Mettler

Yo-Yo Ma is another name that always comes up instantly when thinking of the cream of the crop of the cello, and it is almost impossible not to name him among the first on the list, like Mischa Maisky.

This American cellist of Chinese origin is known for his crystalline sound and impeccable tuning, very different from his Latvian-Israeli colleague.

It is a marvel to hear him play works like the famous cello concertos of Elgar and Dvořák with his powerful and, at the same time, clean and clear sound.

Yo-Yo Ma has the particularity of being especially famous beyond the classical world, which makes him stand out by having the extra merit of having broken that barrier, reaching a totally new audience, making him one of the few cellists who can be named when anyone is asked if they know any.

Unlike other cellists of his stature, Yo-Yo Ma has played with many of the world’s best musicians, such as Bobby McFerrin, Carlos Santana, Diana Krall, and Sting, in addition to dedicating himself to recording albums of traditional Chinese music, the works of the famous Argentine composer of contemporary tango Astor Piazzolla, folk music with his folk group Goat Rodeo Sessions alongside mandolinist Chris Thile, or an exquisite fusion of World Music with his Silk Road Ensemble.

Such levels of exploration and integration propel Yo-Yo Ma to higher levels of popularity than usual.

Watch this video of Yo-Yo Ma performing Dvořák’s Cello Concerto

Stjepan Hauser (born 1986)

Stjepan Hauser
Stjepan Hauser of 2Cellos | Photo: Stefan Brending

The main reason why this young Croatian is among the best cellists today is, of course, for having created 2Cellos: a duo formed by two virtuosic solo cellists who, in this unusual formation, perform the most famous works of pop music from recent decades.

Ending with their patented mark of the broken horsehairs hanging from the tips of their bows, the videos of their rapid performances with a pure display of energy are striking and capture the eye of anyone.

Their explosion of fame was very noticeable, capturing the attention of young audiences and people with refined taste in music without belonging to the classical world, in which cellists traditionally move.

A very evident effect of their appearance was the growth in the popularity of the cello as an instrument and an impossible increase to ignore in the number of people interested in learning to play it.

Stjepan Hauser has collaborated with famous cellists such as Mstislav Rostropovich and Heinrich Schiff. Nowadays, he continues to perform solo, recording his own album and playing with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Watch this video of Hauser performing Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2

Luka Šulić (born 1987)

Luka Šulić
Luka Šulić of 2Cellos | Photo: Stefan Brending

If Stjepan Hauser is on this list, then his colleague Luka Šulić must also be included since he is the co-founder of 2Cellos.

With a virtuosity similar to Stjepan’s, this Slovenian-Croatian cellist has captivated audiences with his duo’s historic performance of Michael Jackson’s hit “Smooth Criminal.”

A few days after the video was released, it became a sensation on YouTube that catapulted him to stardom, something that probably would not have been achieved if he had only played the great classics like the vast majority of his contemporaries.

Thanks to the success derived from that already historic video, Luka joined Stjepan on a world tour with Elton John, with whom they have played hundreds of times.

Nowadays, Luka gives solo concerts of classical music with important orchestras such as the Russian Symphony Orchestra and the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie.

Watch this video of Šulić and Hauser performing “Smooth Criminal” live

Sol Gabetta (born 1981)

Sol Gabetta
Cellist Sol Gabetta | Photo: Franco Ricciardiello

This Argentine cellist has definitely earned her place in this hall of fame thanks to her outstandingly rich and beautiful sound. Many of her renditions of the famous cello pieces are regarded among the best.

She began winning awards when she was just a child, including the prestigious Natalia Gutman Award, after which she continued to win numerous prestigious awards.

Her career isn’t too long due to her young age, but she has managed to already play in the Berlin Philharmonic with Sir Simon Rattle, the Orchestre de Paris, the Staatskapelle Berlin, and many others.

Some of her most impressive work, at least according to my own judgment, are her interpretations of Chopin’s cello works that combine exquisitely with her expressiveness, her Piazzolla renditions, of course, because her Argentine origins let her play Piazzolla’s music as no other like for instance her version of the strikingly beautiful piece “Oblivion,” and last but not least her recordings of Ginastera’s works, one of the few other famous Argentine composers apart from Piazzolla.

Watch this video of Gabetta playing Chopin’s Étude Op. 25, No. 7

Truls Mørk (born 1961)

Truls Mørk
Cellist Truls Mørk | Photo: Morten Krogvold

Born in Norway, Truls Mørk is considered one of the greatest cellists of our time due to his profound musicality in addition to a superlative technical mastery of the instrument comparable to that of Mischa Maisky, who also stands out for this.

Logically, also like Mischa Maisky, Truls Mørk is famous for his brilliant interpretation of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites.

This makes a lot of sense when we consider that the Cello Suites are pieces that leave the instrumentalist absolutely exposed since they have no accompaniment: they are works of such transparency that technical mastery is indispensable to play them with ease and put personal expressiveness in the tiniest spaces that Bach’s incessant semiquavers allow.

Watch this video of Truls Mørk performing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2

Steven Isserlis (born 1958)

Steven Isserlis
British cellist Steven Isserlis | Photo: Satoshi Ayagi

This British cellist has earned his place among the best for his enormous sensitivity in playing, the very high level of subtlety he achieves in every phrase and between note and note, and his remarkable talent for conveying deep emotion through his sound.

Once again, I will mention Bach’s Cello Suites, and you probably wonder why I am so insistent with this work, and the reason is that all the greats play it, and it is one of the clearest works in the cello repertoire, leaving the interpreter naked.

The Cello Suites are like a mirror lake, which as soon as they are played by a cellist, crystal-clearly show the pattern of vibration of waves that has been produced.

They are a beautiful point of comparison between cellists, and if you don’t believe me, listen to the Prelude of Suite No. 1 played by Steven Isserlis, and you will immediately understand why I say that he is a sensitive, subtle cellist who conveys emotion, while, for example, I have described Maisky in a different way.

Listen to Steven Isserlis playing the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1

Julian Lloyd Webber (born 1951)

cellist Julian Lloyd Webber
Julian Lloyd Webber | Photo: Stephen Schowns

Webber is always mentioned when defining who the best are. One quality that has always caught my attention about this also British cellist is the warmth of his sound.

Julian Lloyd Webber had the fortune of being born into a home that emanated music. His father, William Lloyd Webber, was the director of the prestigious London College of Music and a teacher at the Royal College of Music.

His brother is none other than the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the most prominent composers of musical theater in history.

Among his most iconic performances are his interpretations of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

In addition, Webber also stands out in the difficult world of contemporary music, having played beautifully the works of composers such as Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt, which makes him one of the most versatile cellists.

Watch this video of Julian Lloyd Webber playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto

Alisa Weilerstein (born 1982)

Alisa Weilerstein
Alisa Weilerstein | Photo: Gerardo Antonio Sanchez Torres

Alisa Weilerstein, from America, has an incomparable ability to generate a deep emotional connection with the audience attending her concerts.

I’m talking about something difficult to explain that transcends any kind of technical skill I can describe. Her touch is authentically original, flowing from her innate and profound musicality.

Her versions of Elgar’s and Dvořák’s Cello Concertos are also famous for their emotional depth and expressiveness, and, like Julian Lloyd Webber, she has already made a mark in the contemporary music scene thanks to her collaborations with composers such as Osvaldo Golijov and Pascal Dusapin.

Watch this video of Weilerstein performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto

Jaques Morelenbaum (born 1954)

Jaques Morelenbaum
Jaques Morelenbaum | Photo: Roberto Cifarelli

Here comes finally the most controversial part of this list, as I have announced in the conclusion of the introduction.

I could continue at length naming virtuoso academic cellists of a surprising technical level, but it wouldn’t be very interesting.

There are cellists outside the classical world who have left an indelible mark on the history of the instrument, in addition to making the cello known to the general public.

This is the case of the Brazilian Jaques Morelenbaum, known for his significant contributions to popular and classical music.

In addition to being a cellist, this arranger has worked with renowned artists of South American folklore, such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.

Morelenbaum does not stand out among classical cellists, but he is recognized for his versatility and his contribution to the inclusion of the instrument in other music, as well as for the creation of original works.

Watch this video of Jaques Morelenbaum performing for TV show

Eicca Toppinen (born 1975)

Eicca Toppinen
Eicca Toppinen of Apocalyptica | Photo: Antoine Tilly

When I tell people that I play the cello, many times they don’t even know well what instrument it is. Several other times, they do know the instrument, but they cannot name a cellist or a work.

Occasionally, I meet someone who does know something about the cello, and with enthusiasm, they mention to me: “That group of cellos that play Metallica songs… Apocalyptica!”

I would say that, outside the classical world, this Finnish cellist is the most prominent in the world.

Eicca Toppinen is the founder and leader of Apocalyptica, a quartet of extremely talented classmates from the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki with excellent classical training.

They are mostly famous for their versions of Metallica songs as well as for having generated a totally unique style of fusion between classical music, metal, and rock.

Watch this video of Apocalyptica performing “One” from their debut album

Final thoughts

Each of these cellists has a completely unique style, and a trained ear can quickly recognize each of them.

As I mentioned before, it’s a luxury to have such a range of styles in mind when approaching a piece you want to play or simply when choosing which version of a piece you’re going to sit down and enjoy attentively.

What are your personal favorites, and for which works? Is there anyone you believe deserves mention but hasn’t received enough recognition?

Feel free to share your thoughts!

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3 comments
  • There are jazz cellists Tomeka Reid and Erik Friedlander. Reid seems to be the most active right now, playing on a lot of different jazz albums.

    • Totally! Although it’s even more of a niche than the previous ones. Have you heard of the Turtle Island Quartet? I love them.

  • I really liked reading through the article about today’s top cellists. It’s impressive to see how each musician brings their unique style and contribution to the instrument, whether it’s Mischa Maisky’s romantic expressiveness or Stjepan Hauser’s innovative approach with 2Cellos. It’s a reminder of the diverse talent shaping the cello world today.