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Paul Tortelier had the lean, ascetic look of an El Greco saint, yet possessed the turbulent idealism of Don Quixote, whom he portrayed so memorably in Richard Strauss’s tone poem. Tortelier was born in Paris in 1914, months before the outbreak of the Great War. Though the family knew poverty, it was his mother’s dream that her son should be a cellist. He started to learn the instrument at the age of six and at 12 he entered the Paris Conservatoire where he won several prizes before leaving at 16 to play freelance in cafés and cinemas in the days of silent films. A year later he made his professional debut playing Lalo’s Concerto at the Concerts Lamoureux. In 1935 he went to the Monte-Carlo Orchestra as principal cellist and two years later played Don Quixote under Strauss’s own direction. He began his solo career in 1938 in Boston, but this was interrupted by the war, during which he remained in Paris. In 1947 he played Don Quixote in Beecham’s Richard Strauss festival in London to great acclaim. This effectively relaunched his international career and he went on to become one of the world’s most distinguished cellists. He died suddenly in 1990 at the age of 76.
Bach’s solo Cello Suites were always an integral part of Tortelier’s repertoire and CD 1 opens with the first three movements of Suite No.1 in G. Following this is another Baroque work, the Cello Concerto in D by Vivaldi, in which Tortelier also directs the English Chamber Orchestra. Next comes the finale from Haydn’s Cello Concerto No.2 in D recorded with Jörg Faerber conducting the Wurtemburg Chamber Orchestra in Heilbronn. We then hear movements from Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No.4 in C with the French pianist Eric Heidsieck, and Brahms’s Cello Sonata No.2 in F in which the pianist is Tortelier’s daughter, Maria de la Pau. The CD ends with Tortelier’s third EMI recording of his signature work, Don Quixote by Richard Strauss with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe.
CD 2 begins with the first two movements of another of the works central to Tortelier’s repertoire, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, a performance of which won him a prize while he was studying at the Paris Conservatoire. This is followed by an extract from the Walton Cello Concerto conducted by Paavo Berglund and then Paganini’s variations on an operatic aria by Rossini to show off Tortelier’s technical skill as a virtuoso of his instrument, this recording conducted by Tortelier’s cellist wife, Maud Tortelier. Next comes a group of encore pieces, including the inevitable ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ and ‘Le Cygne’, culminating in Three Miniatures for two cellos composed by Tortelier himself and played here with his wife Maud as the second cellist. The programme finishes with a spirited performance of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Rococo’ Variations with the Northern Sinfonia of England conducted by Tortelier’s son Jan Pascal Tortelier.
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