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The 11 best and most famous cello pieces and concertos

One of the reasons why we cherish the cello goes beyond the talents of its performers; it’s also deeply rooted in the timeless masterpieces composed for it and the brilliant composers behind them.

Among the many possible arguments for why they are among the best, one of them is that, in virtually all cases, they have stood out for enabling the most brilliant performances for such a noble instrument.

The most famous cello pieces and concertos are not only jewels of composition in themselves but also the foundation upon which cellists rely to propel themselves to the highest echelons of the music world.

For anyone interested in this instrument, it becomes imperative to know these works and unravel the secrets of why they have become the standards by which all elite cellists in the world are measured.

About me

Manuel Villar Lifac, writer at Higher Hz

After decades of classical training in the cello and the double bass, I have had the fortune of working in symphony orchestras with many of the most renowned musicians in my country. Thus, I have also had the pleasure of immersing myself in some of these wonderful works.

Today, my primary work as a cellist involves recording cello tracks for composers and producers of popular and folk music from around the world, as well as the composition and musical production I do for film and TV music, where my preferred choice is often the cello for its unparalleled expressiveness.

Even in those cases, my main source of inspiration is the great cello works that we will delve into here.

Often, when I am eager to simply play good music, I revisit these pieces or immerse myself in one that I have never studied before, and they never disappoint because they offer me the possibility of an endless journey.

How I chose the greatest cello works

One thing that makes a work excellent is that it allows the performers to shine to their fullest potential, which is why they are the platform upon which the best cellists of today and of all time have relied to showcase their virtues as musicians.

An analogy I like to describe is that of a high-performance car on a highway, with the car representing the cellist riding on a highway that is analogous to the work.

It is easy to see that a Formula 1 car could not reach its thunderous speeds if it were not for the perfect highway on which it moves, and if it were to drive on a dirt road, not only could it not reach its maximum potential but it would barely be able to move.

Another interesting fact is that the greatest works often precede the greatest cellists, which is also clear through this analogy, as Formula 1 cars would never have existed if it were not for the paved highways that already existed.

Thanks to the existence of highways, automobiles with increasingly greater potential have been developed. It is the same with cello works, as thanks to their existence, cellists have been able to develop to increasingly higher levels.

My choice of the works on this list is based on their ability to allow cellists to display their most brilliant and colorful feathers.

They are the works that they themselves have chosen as the best, which has not only made them famous but also the very cellists who chose them and continue to choose them through the passage of centuries.

Here’s a quick list:

  1. Cello Suite No. 1, Prelude – J. S. Bach
  2. Cello Concerto in B minor – Antonín Dvořák
  3. Cello Concerto in E minor – Edward Elgar
  4. Dance of the Elves (Elfentanz) – David Popper
  5. Cello Concerto No. 2 – Dmitri Shostakovich
  6. The Swan (Le cygne) – Camille Saint-Saëns
  7. Concerto for Two Cellos – Antonio Vivaldi
  8. Cello Concerto No. 2 – Joseph Haydn
  9. Cello Concerto No. 9 – Luigi Boccherini
  10. Cello Sonata No. 1 – Johannes Brahms
  11. Cello Sonata No. 3 – Ludwig van Beethoven

Cello Suite No. 1, Prelude – J. S. Bach

If you’ve read the articles I recently wrote about the greatest cellists, you can probably anticipate that, personally, if I have to name the most iconic cello piece, without a doubt, the first one that comes to my mind is Bach’s Cello Suites, and among all the parts that comprise this set of Suites, if I have to name just one, it’s the Prelude of Suite No. 1.

This piece is an absolute masterpiece impossible to ignore; it seduces me so much, and its nature is so benevolent that it has led me to literally play it every day, which is why I’ll elaborate a bit more on this work than on the others. Besides, I can’t find a better prelude to this list.

As for the fame of this piece, it’s undoubtedly the most well-known in the entire cello repertoire, appearing in countless films and commercials. If there’s a cello piece that, besides being known by musicians, is known by everyone, it’s this one.

Additionally, something beautiful about the Prelude is that, compared to other cello masterpieces, it’s relatively easy to play, and any intermediate cellist who handles basic positions can start nurturing themselves by enjoying this marvel, which contributes a lot to its wide dissemination.

When I ask myself what makes this Prelude so great, several answers come to mind. The first is that this work achieves a lot with very little, using a handful of basic concepts and achieving a before-and-after in just two minutes.

With its two modest pages of practically pure sixteenth notes, it uses not much more than two chords.

Between the tension of the dominant and the resolution of the tonic, it achieves an effect of growth and accumulation of a cosmic pulse – as Benjamin Zander likes to call it – that, after long measures of increasing tension, culminates in a finale of pure explosion of joy and ecstasy.

If there’s something I can sincerely tell you after having immersed myself daily in this piece for a long time, it’s that I always feel better after playing it.

I consider this is not something external about the piece, but because one needs to put oneself in a particular state in order to honor it. An internal journey is necessary.

An interesting characteristic of this piece is that, like all of Bach’s works in general, it’s like a blank canvas.

Bach only bequeathed us the notes without further instructions, so the cellist has the freedom to choose the tempo, the bow strokes, the articulations, the dynamics, and a myriad of details that offer a great opportunity to truly appropriate this work and produce the best version.

That’s why I often like to refer to this piece as “the cellist’s X-ray,” as it totally exposes the interpreter’s soul; there are no indications to hide behind, no orchestration or accompaniment to cover our intimacies, and every little decision one makes is heard as clear as water.

The famous Paul Tortelier referred to this piece as a stream through which water flows freely, and any exaggeration of expressiveness or exacerbation of technical correctness interrupts the natural flow of water.

This pure and transparent nature of the piece, through which each interpreter’s unique light can shine clearly, can be evidenced by how diametrically different, for example, the famous versions of Mischa Maisky and Mstislav Rostropovich are, who were student and master respectively.

There’s a quote from Alisa Weilerstein that illustrates very well what Bach’s Prelude generates:

We cellists always feel sort of unworthy of it. The music is so pure, so sublime, so emotional, so intellectual. It must be played and yet we feel like we can’t really ever do it justice.Alisa Weilerstein, American cellist

In conclusion, what Bach wrote at the end of each of his scores is not a detail, and it shows his commitment to an infinite path similar to the one Weilerstein describes: “For the Glory of God.”

Cello Concerto in B minor – Antonín Dvořák

This list couldn’t be complete without Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, as this piece is one of the first to come to mind when thinking about the most outstanding cello works.

I know what brings us here is the cello, but if we’re talking about works, we have to consider everything, and what I mean is that this concerto not only stands out for the beautiful and memorable melodies composed for the solo instrument but also has a powerful and very characteristic orchestration reminiscent of the also very famous New World Symphony by the same composer, with its unforgettable epicness and explosive passages.

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto contains melodies that resonate over time as anthems in its three movements, especially the lyrical melody in G major that stars in the second movement, based on a song that Dvořák himself had composed a few years earlier and titled “Lasst mich allein” (Leave me alone).

This work has an intrinsic relationship with Dvořák’s life, and perhaps that’s why it exudes such strong emotionality impossible to ignore.

Dvořák had married Anna Čermáková, although her older sister, Josefina, was Dvořák’s true great love in his youth. So much so that he dedicated several of the first songs he composed to Josefina. However, she decided to marry an aristocrat, which is why Dvořák ended up marrying Anna.

The thing is that years later, while Dvořák was composing his Cello Concerto, he learned that Josefina was seriously ill, so he decided to pay tribute to her by including her favorite song in the second movement, the aforementioned lied “Lasst mich allein.”

When he returned to Europe, he learned that Josefina had died, so he added a quote from that same melody at the conclusion of the third movement to express the pain he felt at having lost the woman he had loved most intimately.

I’ve noticed that many works that have endured over time possess the quality of intertwining the author’s life with their creative output.

Cello Concerto in E minor – Edward Elgar

This work usually comes to mind practically in combo with Dvořák’s Cello Concerto because they compete for the podium of the greatest cello concertos, although they are very different from each other.

This is one of Edward Elgar’s most famous works and is a milestone in the instrument’s repertoire. Its solo cello beginning without orchestration is powerful and heart-wrenching, continuing along with an orchestration growing into a true explosion.

In this case, the orchestration is not as overwhelming as Dvořák’s, which attracts a lot of attention. In my opinion, Elgar has chosen to build a more delicate and subtle orchestration that makes the cello shine better floating above it.

This work oscillates between melancholic lyrical melodies, passages of exuberant virtuosity, and fun moments of mischievous revelry.

Something that always surprises me when listening to it is the ease and naturalness with which this music transitions through such dissimilar moments almost seamlessly.

There’s something about the history of this work that I love, and it’s that Elgar wrote it at a very particular moment.

After undergoing a dangerous surgery, the first thing he did when he regained consciousness was to ask for a pencil and paper and scribble down the melody that would become the leitmotif of the concerto.

Like many other great works that have become cornerstones of their genre, this one came by magic as an inspiration from the world of dreams, just as it happened to people as dissimilar as Paul McCartney with “Yesterday” or even great thinkers of history like Albert Einstein and René Descartes who admit to having developed important parts of their contribution to humanity thanks to what their dreams showed them.

Dance of the Elves (Elfentanz) – D. Popper

As dizzying as a roller coaster, this piece that never lasts more than three minutes is like a gang of mischievous elves dancing with musical note machine guns that fly at the speed of light, and just when it seems they’re going to relax, they have more.

It’s a somewhat humorous way to describe this magnificent piece by the great cellist and pedagogue David Popper.

For any cellist who wants to risk being approached by these little elves who reside especially in that peculiar passage of high harmonics outside the fingerboard, Elfentanz is a direct springboard to exuberant virtuosity, the perfect way to dazzle.

Like many of Popper’s works, the Dance of the Elves is an excellent study piece that forces the instrumentalist to develop a high level of technical mastery of the cello. You will be flabbergasted by Sol Gabetta’s interpretation when she was just a child.

Cello Concerto No. 2 – Dmitri Shostakovich

Alongside Dvořák and Elgar, Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 2 enters the Hall of Fame of cello concertos in history, bringing the indispensable Russian spirit to the instrument’s repertoire.

I’ve referred not only to the cello but also to the orchestration of Dvořák’s and Elgar’s concertos, and the same is true in this concerto because, at the symphonic level, it’s superb. After all, orchestration is one of the strengths of 20th-century Russian composers.

In his Cello Concerto No. 2, Shostakovich achieves a perfect symbiosis between the cello and the orchestra. The balance between both elements in a captivating game of question and answer between the orchestra and the soloist is excellent, interspersing with passages of singable cello melodies.

The Swan (Le cygne) – Camille Saint-Saëns

In the vast repertoire of classical music, there are works that are representative of different issues. If we think of music that refers to the sublime, we can think of Bach’s Cello Suites, as Alisa Weilerstein has said, or Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from Symphony No. 9.

When it comes to pieces that convey power and tempestuousness, the second movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 or the Summer Storm from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons are good examples.

When it comes to finding a work representative of beauty, one of the first that comes to mind is Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, one of the 14 parts that make up The Carnival of the Animals.

In less than three minutes, this composition achieves its goal perfectly, using delicate piano arpeggios that couldn’t be anything other than the stillness of a lake upon which the colors of its peaceful surroundings are reflected.

Delicate ripples cross the water’s surface, the effect of a swan gliding with the voice of a cello.

To play this piece and transmit such beauty, one must truly tune in to what it wants to illustrate, something that, in my consideration, some cellists who are part of today’s crème de la crème don’t achieve.

If I have to recommend a version, it’s Yo-Yo Ma’s, which undoubtedly manages to exude beauty through every pore, just as Saint-Saëns depicted it in the score. His bow manages to glide over the strings like a white feather on the water.

Concerto for Two Cellos – Antonio Vivaldi

This concerto has a peculiarity that is already revealed in its title, and that is that it’s not played in such a particular way since it’s not for a single cello but for two.

This so singular – if ironically the word can be used – Concerto for Two Cellos is by far the most famous with these characteristics, as the small handful of works that exist with the same formation are practically unknown in contrast to how widely disseminated this work by Vivaldi is.

As expected, it has an orchestration similar to Vivaldi’s other works for string orchestra with harpsichord, and its sound is very directly reminiscent of his most famous work of all, The Four Seasons concertos for violin and orchestra.

Cello Concerto No. 2 – Joseph Haydn

Haydn’s concertos are more than important in the cello repertoire, marking a milestone in the history of the instrument.

This work marks a before-and-after because its composition has meant a quantum leap in the technical development of cellists.

It’s known that the virtuoso cellist of the time, Antonín Kraft, who was nothing more and nothing less than a direct student of both Haydn and Mozart, contributed substantially to the technique of the instrument to make playing this work possible, which is characterized by being more demanding for the soloist than other works by Haydn and his contemporaries.

This concerto is so difficult to play and requires so much precision that it’s standard in practically all competitions to enter any symphony orchestra today.

Any cellist who wants to develop professionally has to climb the mountain of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major.

Cello Concerto No. 9 – Luigi Boccherini

This list wouldn’t be complete without one of Luigi Boccherini’s cello concertos, who, besides being a highly recognized composer in classical history, was one of the greatest cellists of all time.

So much so that even today, he is one of the most famous cellists in history without any phonographic record of his talent as an instrumentalist.

Not depending on the existence of recordings for his name to endure over the centuries among the best in the cello, Boccherini was a very prolific composer in general and particularly for the instrument, providing a large repertoire that substantially influenced its development.

This concerto, besides being explosive, is sweet and lyrical, with endearing and singable melodies. I highly recommend Jacqueline Du Pré’s version, which crowns the first movement with a breathtaking cadenza.

Cello Sonata No. 1 – Johannes Brahms

Brahms composed two sonatas, and both are highly esteemed works when it comes to the classical romantic cello repertoire.

I’ve chosen the first one because, besides the fact that it’s more emotive to me personally, I notice that it’s a bit more famous than the second one, although it’s very common for them to come as a set.

The beginning of this sonata is already captivating, with a deep cello melody that must be played with profound intensity.

It’s logical that Brahms composed so well for the strings since he was a violinist and cellist, as well as being an exquisite pianist, having been a child prodigy who gave concerts on tours.

The strings of his symphonies are marvelous, as well as his repertoire for these instruments, such as his works for violin and his trios for violin, cello, and piano.

Cello Sonata No. 3 – Ludwig van Beethoven

Last but not least, Beethoven’s cello sonatas cannot be missing from the list. If we have to choose one among the five very popular sonatas that Beethoven wrote for the cello, definitely the one that stands out the most is the third one.

The passion that this work exudes is what we can expect from Beethoven, who somehow always manages to make that intensity pass from paper to the real world every time his work is well interpreted.

The themes of the sonata are simple, easily memorable, and singable, while at the same time paving the way for an ebullient development of music, a characteristic in which Beethoven is simply the best, which is conclusively demonstrated in his Symphonies No. 5 and No. 9, which achieve ecstatic emotion through the development of nothing more than a four-note theme or a melody that sung a cappella doesn’t seem much more than a children’s song.

Final thoughts

The cello repertoire is vast, and when making this type of list, we unjustly leave out many works. It’s worth noting that several works that haven’t made it onto this list are not simply famous cello pieces but have marked a before and after or are at the pinnacle of virtuosity.

If you consider it necessary to do justice to one of these works, please feel free to write your comment telling me which and why.