Cello just may be the mightiest instrument in classical music; with its booming bass, silky middle register, and achingly beautiful high notes, this is an instrument equally adept to the solo repertoire as it is performing in an orchestra.
Many have wielded this fine instrument, performing it throughout the world’s finest concert halls. However, who were the greatest cellists of all time?
Today, we are examining the careers of 15 incredible and iconic cellists considered among the very best. These are the cellists who have the most rarefied solo careers in classical music, though a few were highly accomplished orchestral musicians as well.
No list is complete when it comes to great cellists; plenty of amazing artists not mentioned here could also be included. This is not a ranking list of the best cellists.
Additionally, several of these cellists are living! They continue to release new music every single year.
Here are our picks for 15 of the greatest cellists of all time.
Leonard Rose (1918 – 1984)
Rose was something of a prodigy, graduating from the Curtis Institute at the age of 20 and becoming the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal cellist at age 21. For the next twelve years, Rose was a full-time orchestral musician, taking his second professional appointment with the New York Philharmonic at the age of just 26.
Rose had a considerable influence on cello pedagogy; his students, even to this day, have appointments in the Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, and Philadelphia Orchestra, just to name a few. He taught several other names appearing later on this list, including Yo-Yo Ma and Lynn Harrell.
In an article on Cello.org, Yo-Yo Ma said this about Leonard Rose: “I came to a lesson and Mr. Rose said to me, ‘You played very well but I would like you to take the Fourth Sonata of Beethoven and figure it out for yourself’…it takes a great teacher to grant that kind of permission and encouragement.”
In 1971, Leonard Rose won a Grammy award for Best Chamber Music Performance, recording alongside violinist Isaac Stern and pianist Eugene Istomin.
Steven Isserlis (1958 – )
Isserlis is one of the world’s great living cellists and something of a celebrity in Britain, his home country. Isserlis is unique among cellists for his commitment to performing period works with the most extraordinary authenticity. He is well known for performing on a cello outfitted with gut strings, which was once the standard material for stringed instruments.
In the early 1970s, Isserlis attended the Oberlin College-Conservatory of Music for his undergraduate degree. Since then, he has collaborated with several of the best living classical musicians, including violinist Joshua Bell, pianist Stephen Hough, and pianist/conductor András Schiff.
Isserlis is also a champion for new music, having commissioned works by composers Lowell Liebermann, Thomas Adès, and Wolfgang Rihm. He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) over twenty years ago in 1998, and has additionally written classical music texts for children.
Pierre Fournier (1906 – 1986)
A championed French soloist, Fournier is a “cellist’s cellist” who displayed the highest level of musicianship, phrasing, and artistry in his work.
Despite his heyday being over 50 years ago, Fournier’s legacy lives on to this day. Even with all the available interpretations of the Bach Cello Suites available on Spotify, Fournier’s recording remains among the most popular, with over 8 million streams on his 1961 album of the complete Bach Cello Suites.
In 1963, Pierre Fournier became a member of the Legion of Honour, the highest honor the French government bestows. He was also the dedicatee to several important cello works in the repertoire, including Poulenc’s Cello Sonata and Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s Cello Concerto No. 1.
Fournier directly influenced several of the world’s great cellists, including Julian Lloyd Webber, who also appears on this list.
Lynn Harrell (1944 – 2020)
Lynn Harrell was one of the most famous American cellists of all time and one of its most distinguished teachers.
Harrell came from a musical family; his father was one of the Aspen Music Festival founders, a significant classical music festival based in Colorado. His mother was a violinist who held a residency at the University of North Texas College of Music.
Harrell studied with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School. Subsequently, he studied at the Curtis Institute of Music with Orlando Cole, another famous American cello pedagogue. At the age of 20, he won the Principal Cello position of the Cleveland Orchestra, an appointment he kept until age 27 in 1971.
In 1971, Harrell made his debut in New York City, a debut in which the New York Times claimed, “this young man has everything.” His performance career included soloing with every prominent American orchestra.
Harrell’s extensive teaching career includes appointments with the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, USC Thornton School of Music, Rice University Shepherd School of Music, Juilliard, and CIM, among other schools.
Julian Lloyd Webber (1951 – )
Lloyd Webber is one of the great soloists of our time. He is also a one-of-a-kind teacher who founded In Harmony, a music education program based on the Venezuelan El Sistema system.
Born in 1951, Julian Lloyd Webber attended the Royal College of Music. He additionally studied with acclaimed French cellist Pierre Fournier, an acclaimed cellist cited earlier in this list.
Throughout his illustrious career, Julian Lloyd Webber performed with many of the greatest conductors of our time. They include Lorin Maazel, Georg Solti, Neville Mariner, and dozens more.
His recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, created in collaboration with conductor Yehudi Menuhin, was dubbed the most refined version ever by BBC Magazine in their 1992 issue “Building a Library.”
Lloyd Webber additionally held a stable job in academia, having served as the Principal of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in Birmingham, England.
Julian Lloyd Webber is the brother of musical theatre legend Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Ralph Kirshbaum (1946 – )
Ralph Kirshbaum was born in Denton, Texas, just two years after cellist Lynn Harrell, who was also born and raised in Denton. Growing up in a musical family, Kirshbaum studied with his father until age 11. At age 15, Ralph Kirshbaum debuted with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He later went to the Yale School of Music to study with legendary cello teacher Aldo Parisot.
In 1970, he made his European debut at London’s Wigmore Hall playing Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. For the big debut, none other than cellist Jacqueline Du Pré lent her Stradivarius to Kirshbaum. Since then, Kirshbaum has performed with just about every major orchestra globally, including the significant orchestras of both the US and Europe.
He later took up a teaching position at USC Thornton, an appointment he holds to this day. Holding the Gregor Piatigorsky Endowed Chair at USC, Kirshbaum is just the third cellist to hold the position after Piatigorsky himself and fellow Denton native Lynn Harrell.
His contributions to performance and pedagogy rank him among the essential living classical musicians.
Matt Haimovitz (1970 – )
Haimovitz grew up in Israel until 1975 when his family moved to Palo Alto, California. At the age of 13, Haimovitz was introduced to cellist Leonard Rose by Itzhak Perlman. Haimovitz moved to New York City at age 13 to study with Rose, who said Haimovitz was “probably the greatest talent I have ever taught.”
Due to his success as a child prodigy, Haimovitz signed an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon.
Becoming dissatisfied with the status quo of classical music performance, Haimovitz began performing classical cello in unconventional venues, including nightclubs and restaurants. That performing classical music in non-formal venues is seen as relatively usual today is due, in part, to Haimovitz’s efforts.
Haimovitz has collaborated with several musicians, including pianist and public radio talk show host Christopher O’Riley on the album “Shuffle.Play.Listen.” Haimovitz is now a professor at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music.
János Starker (1924 – 2013)
János Starker was a Hungarian-American cellist who started life as a child prodigy. Starker made his professional debut at age 14 when he played the Dvořák Cello Concerto with a three-hour notice; the scheduled soloist could not perform.
Frustrated at his own success as a prodigy, Starker once famously said, “What happens to the bird who flies and doesn’t know how it flies? That’s what happens to child prodigies.”
Although he later won the principal cello position of the Budapest Opera and Budapest Philharmonic in 1946, he moved to the United States in 1948 to become the Principal Cellist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Subsequent appointments included the Principal Cello position of the Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Symphony.
In 1958, he joined the faculty at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, staying there until he died in 2013. At Indiana, Starker taught several generations of cellists for 55 years.
Alisa Weilerstein (1982 – )
Not even yet 40 years old, Alisa Weilerstein is the youngest cellist on this list. One of the Weilersteins, a prominent family in classical music, she made her debut at the age of 13 in 1995 with the Cleveland Orchestra.
Weilerstein has had a decorated career as a classical cellist. Her accolades include a 2011 MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, an Avery Fisher Career Grant, and the Leonard Bernstein Prize at the Schleswig-Holstein music festival.
Weilerstein is known for her commitment to expanding the cello repertoire. She has championed the works of several composers, including Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov and American female composer Lera Auerbach.
Notably, Weilerstein is a celebrity speaker on behalf of Type 1 Diabetes foundations, having been diagnosed with the condition herself before the age of 10.
Paul Tortelier (1914 – 1990)
Tortelier was a great friend of Pablo Casals, and the two of them were the pre-eminent cello virtuosi of the early 20th century. He was also the teacher to Jacqueline Du Pré, one of the world’s most enduringly popular musicians.
Tortelier began playing the cello at age six. Unlike many other cellists on this list, Tortelier’s upbringings were comparatively more humble; he did not grow up in a musical family, and his father was a cabinet maker! Despite these humble beginnings, he was admitted to the Paris Conservatory at just 12 years old.
At age 21, Tortelier joined the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic in Monaco, and at 23 he joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in which he stayed until age 26.
His career throughout the 1930s and 1940s was restricted due to World War II. Withstanding his time’s political climate, Torterlier still made a name for himself, eventually becoming the Prades Festival’s principal cellist at the invitation of Pablo Casals himself.
Tortelier finished his career teaching at the Paris Conservatory as well as at the Folkwang Hochschule in Germany.
Gregor Piatigorsky (1903 – 1976)
Acclaimed Juilliard violin professor Ivan Galamian once said, supposedly, Gregor Piatigorsky is the greatest string player of all time. When listening to his discography, one can hear a dramatic phrasing and technical command of an instrument so few players have achieved.
Piatigorsky’s early studies were at the Moscow Conservatory. When he achieved recognition, the Soviet authorities did not allow Piatigorsky to study outside of his native country. In a daring and risky move, Piatigorsky snuck off to Poland anyway to continue his cello studies and career.
In his first several decades, Gregor Piatigorsky performed under the baton of hundreds of conductors, including Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg of the New York Philharmonic.
Several important cello pieces were written for Piatigorsky, including Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto, Hindemith’s Cello Concerto, and William Walton’s Cello Concerto.
In Piatigorsky’s later career, he became a cello teacher at Curtis Institute of Music and the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. In 1965, he published his bestselling biography, Cellist.
Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973)
Few were more dedicated to improving their craft than cellist and conductor Pablo Casals. Famously asked at age 90 why he keeps practicing every day, Casals replied, “because I think I’m making progress.”
Growing up in Spain, Casals eventually became the first modern-era cello prodigy. He was discovered in 1893 by the prominent Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz, who helped him advance his young career and conservatory studies.
Casals helped generate public excitement and interest in the cello in an era when composers wrote less cello solo works than they did violin or piano concerti.
Although born and active in Europe, he was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In addition to his work as a cellist, he was an active conductor and even composer.
Mstislav Rostropovich (1927 – 2007)
In his heyday, Rostropovich was considered the most outstanding cellist in the world and perhaps of all time. Rostropovich is credited with helping expand cello music’s repertoire dramatically, having performed over 100 works explicitly dedicated to him from dozens of composers, including Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Leonard Bernstein.
Rostropovich grew up in Soviet Russia, and his early life was chock full of European performances.
However, Rostropovich was a staunch advocate for freedom of speech during the Soviet regime. As a result, he was eventually exiled by the Societ Union, settling with his family in the United States in the 1970s.
His later career included becoming the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra based in Washington, DC. He famously performed when the Berlin Wall collapsed, and his Soviet citizenship was restored shortly after in 1990.
Some of his most essential recordings include the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the London Philharmonic, the Dutilleux Cello Concerto with the Orchestra of Paris, and the Frank Bridge Cello Sonata playing alongside none other than British composer Benjamin Britten.
Jacqueline Du Pré (1945 – 1987)
One of classical music’s most enduringly popular and tragic figures, Jacqueline Du Pré was a great cellist whose career was cut short by multiple sclerosis.
Born in England, she made her debut at age 16 at Wigmore Hall in London. She became famous for her interpretation of the Elgar Cello Concerto, which she played for four consecutive years at the BBC Proms starting in 1963 at just the age of 18. The Elgar Cello Concerto is still synonymous with Jacqueline Du Pre; over 22 million streams of her London Symphony recording exist on Spotify.
While in her early and mid-20s, she soloed with the premiere orchestras throughout the world, including the London Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, and Philadelphia Orchestra. She married pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim; the two were one of classical music’s celebrity couples.
Her career was tragically cut short by multiple sclerosis, which was formally diagnosed in 1973. Her life story became the Academy-award nominated movie Hilary and Jackie, a film depicting the relationship between Jacqueline Du Pre and her sister, flutist Hilary Finzi.
Yo-Yo Ma (1955 – )
Yo-Yo Ma is not only the most distinguished cellist today, he may just be the most successful and well-known classical performer of all time. A child prodigy who began playing before the age of 5, Yo-Yo Ma’s six-decade career includes 18 Grammy awards, diplomas from Juilliard and Harvard, and a nod in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People 2020 list.
Yo-Yo Ma grew up in a musical family and was famous even before the age of 10. When he was just eight years old, he appeared on national television alongside his sister in an event introduced by none other than Leonard Bernstein. At age 9, Yo-Yo Ma was on the Johnny Carson show.
Yo-Yo Ma’s repertoire is vast; it includes traditional cello repertoire, newly commissioned classical music, bluegrass, film works, and tango music. He is also a proponent of Chinese music with his Eastern-inspired Silk Road Ensemble.
A regular in film scores, Yo-Yo Ma has performed on the soundtrack in many beloved movies, including major blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Godfrey Reggio’s art film Naqoyatsi, and John Williams’ film score to the film Seven Years in Tibet.
Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the six Bach Cello Suites is the most heard version in history, with over 250 million streams on Spotify alone.
Other Great Cellists: Mischa Maisky, Stephen Kates, Sol Gabetta, Heinrich Schiff, Natalie Gutman