Violoncello in vogue. Long on expressiveness, short on music repertoire, the cello is out of the chamber into the limelight

IT is one of the oddities of the musical world that certain staple instruments go in and out of fashion at various times. Take the cello, for example. In the past two decades, it was an instrument one encountered only in chamber music or the odd concerto or recital. Why? It's hard to say. Is it because not every generation produces an impressive number of great cellists, or is it because, when the cello is out of favor, youngsters take up more ``popular'' instruments?

The cello has a lot going for it. Its expressive range is immense. No other stringed instrument is capable of generating such a variety of hues and timbres. It is the foundation of the string quartet and gives the depth and glow to orchestral string sound. But the instrument has its bad points, too. It is an unwieldy travel- and play-mate. Most of the time it needs its own airline seat. It fits very awkwardly between the knees, and the player must hunch over it to get the high notes. It is, clearly, not an instrument that sells itself, in the manner of a violin or a flute.

Despite the cello's drawbacks, the past 50 years have not been wanting in important cellists. Legends such as Pablo Casals, Emanuel Feuermann and, a bit later, Grigor Piatigorsky paved the way for an impressive generation and a half of players, among whom must be listed Pierre Fournier, Paul Tortelier, the late Leonard Rose, Janos Starker, and Mstislav Rostropovich. The subsequent generation produced primarily Jacqueline Du Pr'e, even though illness cut short her brilliant career.

And then there came a gap, arguably until Lynn Harrell came to musical maturity, but surely until Yo-Yo Ma blazed his way onto the concert scene a few years back. Suddenly the cello was being sought after by an increasingly avid public. Behind Mr. Ma are others who are going to clinch popularity, particularly Carter Brey, who is just now on the verge of an important career. And behind him there is a 15-year-old marvel named Matt Haimovitz, who made an unexpected New York Philharmonic debut two weekends back.

One problem facing cellists is the relative scarcity of important music, especially in the concerto literature. There are some superb concertos -- including those by Haydn, Dvorak, Elgar, Walton -- but none matches the violin concertos of Brahms or Beethoven. Schubert and Mendelssohn, along with the two aforementioned giants, wrote some glorious sonatas and trios. Bach's six unaccompanied cello suites are pillars of Western music. But the violin fared so much better in consistently challenging history's musical geniuses.

I was reminded of this during Mr. Brey's recital at the 92nd Street Y a few weekends back. Here was a prodigiously gifted cellist playing not only some of the greatest music ever written, but transcriptions of violin pieces as well. When Brey was dealing with Bach's Sixth Cello Suite, one could marvel anew at how the composer transformed seven French baroque dance styles into a work both profound and stirring. When Brey played Fritz Kreisler's charming ``Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice,'' however, one was mostly aware of how uncomfortably this music fit the cello. The piece clearly cries out for the penetrating wiriness of the upper range of a violin; the fruity nasality of the equivalent cello range does not communicate the same aural tension.

Surprisingly, the shortage of cello music has never stood between a promising cellist and a notable career. For instance, Mr. Haimovitz was heard with the New York Philharmonic in the Saint-Sa"ens First Cello Concerto -- delightful music, though unimportant. However, it was a wise choice. Master Haimovitz could dazzle with his pyrotechnics without forcing the issue of a 15-year-old's musical profundity. The Saint-Sa"ens can sound awfully trivial in the wrong hands; Haimovitz played it as if every note really mattered to him. He has some distracting habits, such as violent head-shaking and excessive gruntings, which have to be checked before they become ingrained. But clearly, he is one to watch.

Mr. Brey is beyond the watching stage. He is a seasoned artist gaining in strength and communicative prowess. He strides out with an ``I can't wait to play'' attitude. He plays free of mannerisms. His tone is large, pliant, seductive. And he has really begun to search below the surface of the music at hand. The Bach Sixth Cello Suite, in particular, had a vitality that kept one anticipating the next phrase. And the Beethoven Third Cello Sonata (ably partnered by Edmund Battersby) had an electric edge to it, a propulsive singerly quality. Brey radiates an enthusiasm and possesses an eloquent simplicity and musical directness that set him apart from so many performers today.

Mr. Ma is in a league all his own. He played the Elgar concerto with the Philharmonic last week. This most mournful of personal statements -- suffused with the pain of loss and a comfortless nostalgia for a musical era that had passed the composer by -- brings out the very deepest in Mr. Ma's musicmaking. Suffice it to say the performance was extraordinary, and it brought out the best in conductor Zubin Mehta and the Philharmonic players as well.

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