“When I started learning the cello, I fell in love with the instrument because it seemed like a voice – my voice,” explained Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the 20th century’s greatest cellists. The warmth and human-like quality of the cello’s timbre features strongly as Kings Place turns the spotlight on this most soulful of instruments. For the ninth edition of its Unwrapped concert series, it features many of the world's great cellists in 2017, performing a strikingly wide range of repertoire.

While the cello was a member of the violin family, the viola da gamba derived from the guitar. These two instruments jostled for supremacy – one favoured in Italy, the other in Spain – and this friendly rivalry is charted in a joint programme by Richard Boothby (viols) and cellist Richard Tunnicliffe.

Alban Gerhardt explores the cello’s range from its Baroque base to the late 20th century for the opening concert. Antonio Vivaldi, a prolific violinist, didn’t play the cello, yet he still penned more concertos for the instrument than anyone else – 28 at the last tally. His B flat minor concerto RV424, like the other 27, is cast in three movements. The recipe is familiar: an orchestral ritornello opening before the cello enters (here in a state of great anxiety). A lyrical central slow movement gives way to a playful finale. The 19th century is represented by Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme – not a concerto, but a work which pays homage to the composer’s love of Mozart, with its playful treatment of a wistful tune. Britten represents the 20th century with the Canto Primo from his First Cello Suite. Ravel and Stravinsky each pay tribute to the Baroque era – Le Tombeau de Couperin and Pulcinella – in the Aurora Orchestra’s beautifully constructed programme.

While Bach never wrote any concertos for the cello, his six suites for solo cello are among the greatest works ever composed for the instrument, prized for their virtuosity and serenity. Three cellists take Bach’s suites on a journey through time, juxtaposing them with works from different eras. Christophe Coin programmes the Second and Sixth Suites alongside works by Domenico Gabrielli, one of the first to write for unaccompanied cello, and Evaristo Felice Dall'Abaco, one of Bach’s contemporaries. Between the Fourth and Fifth Suites, Natalie Clein plunges us into Bloch and Kurtág, while Pieter Wispelwey performs Britten and Ligeti between the First and Third Suites. David Watkin dissects these six masterpieces as he works with young cellists ‘Unlocking the Bach Cello Suites’.

Ludwig van Beethoven composed five wonderful cello sonatas which took the cello to new heights – impassioned works of stormy turbulence, but through which he allows beams of sunlight to pass. Xavier Phillips and François-Frédéric Guy programme the final three sonatas in their Kings Place recital. Beethoven’s writing for the instrument is also celebrated in a piano trio recital featuring Adrian Brendel, Henning Kraggerud and Imogen Cooper. They include the famous “Archduke” Trio, dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria, amateur pianist and a keen composition student of Beethoven.

Gautier Capuçon is one of the young star cellists audiences are eager to hear. His stylish playing and the bold, immediate sound of his 1701 Matteo Goffriller impressed enormously in his recent performance of Dvořák’s famed concerto in London. His Kings Place programme features Debussy’s late sonata as well as works by Martinů, Britten and Fauré, plus Beethoven’s earliest cello sonata.

The other great French cellist of the moment – Jean-Guihen Queyras – also features in the Cello Unwrapped season, playing Haydn’s sunny Cello Concerto no. 2 with Geneva Camerata. He concludes the concert in upbeat fashion with a Fantasy on I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ from Porgy and Bess.

Among the rarities programmed across the season, Grieg’s Cello Sonata deserves your attention. The Norwegian had just abandoned work on a second piano concerto due to lack of inspiration, and in the sonata he hearkened back to the world of his famous Piano Concerto in A minor – there’s even what briefly seems a direct quotation at one point in the turbulent Allegro agitato. Double bass virtuoso Gary Karr asked Joseph Horovitz to turn it into a concerto, which Raphael Wallfisch later asked his son Benjamin to rescore back for cello. Wallfisch here plays the original sonata alongside works by Leighton, Mendelssohn and MacMillan.

Russian repertoire is explored by Narek Hakhnazaryan in a gorgeous looking recital bookended by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, between which comes works from Armenia, reflecting the cellist’s homeland. Although a ‘cello sonata’, the piano – unsurprisingly – plays a major role in Rachmaninov’s Op.19, introducing the main themes. Oxana Schevchenko, from Kazakhstan, will ensure we notice the piano’s contribution as keenly as the cello’s.

At the contemporary end of the cello spectrum, Maya Beiser has pioneered new works for the instrument using amplification, pre-recorded tracks, voice and film. She performs an evening of works written for her, including Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint, for cello and pre-recorded tape, and the UK première by of Julia Wolfe’s Emunah.

The season also charts the cello’s story to include folk, tango and jazz traditions as well as the instrument’s role in Baroque continuo and its development into the 21st century. Listeners with young children – or those just young at heart – will enjoy Cellophony cello octet’s presentation of The Wind in the Willows, an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic book featuring the adventures of Toad, Ratty and Mole.

Finally, Rostropovich’s analogy between the cello and the human voice is brought home in a lovely Oxford Lieder recital featuring songs which include cello accompaniment. Joan Rodgers is joined by cellist Guy Johnston, who also programmes two works dedicated to Rostropovich himself: Prokofiev’s sonata and Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems by Aleksandr Blok. The Russian master would have purred with delight.


This article was sponsored by Kings Place.