“Tortelier and Rostropovich are quite alike” Jacqueline du Pré told me when she called upon returning from Moscow, “the only difference is that in Tortelier’s class the women are constantly in tears and in Rostropovich’s, it is the men too.” 

Paul Tortelier

Tortelier never intended to upset his students but his impulsive temperament, when not applied to the cello, often got the better of him. My association began as a 12 year-old. “It is a leettle late but we will manage” was his prediction after persuading my mother that I must go immediately to Paris to study with him.

In the UK, Tortelier’s colourfully flamboyant televised master classes sustained his image as a star, but back at the Conservatoire his teaching style was markedly different. Only the students mattered and no teacher was more committed. By today’s standards his approach would be deemed autocratic. Before starting a new piece we were required to copy his markings assiduously. Deviation was not encouraged, but if you brought different ideas to the class his reaction would be one of the following:

“Mais non!!” or: “Bravo, may I copy your fingering?” and on one occasion: “That’s very expressive. What fingering do you use? Can I copy it?” Me: “Maître, it’s your fingering!” Pause, whilst he fingered it in his mind, then: “Oui, en effet!”

Nothing was set in stone. In a lesson on Bach’s G major Courante in which I had dutifully followed his newly published bowings and fingerings, he proceeded to turn everything on its head, somewhat to the exasperation of his wife with whom my lesson followed on the same piece. As he relentlessly sought to develop his ideas he would alter his bowings and fingerings at the drop of a hat. During a rehearsal of Haydn’s D major concerto he was unhappy with a fingering in the slow movement. I suggested another - probably one of his own, but when the passage arrived during performance he beamed at me in acknowledgement.

We too were expected to be adaptable. Minutes before an exam at which I had to play the scherzo from the Elgar concerto, I recall him hovering excitedly backstage proffering a new fingering. Useful training perhaps, but not for nothing that his wife dubbed him an indécismaître

Leonard Rose thought him: “meshuge, (mad) but nicely meshuge”.  Isaac Stern disagreed: “Let’s just say he was a little different”, whilst their pianist Eugene Istomin remarked: “Well HE ain’t no slouch!” But in these days of greater consensus they all agreed he was a great cellist even if some musicians were less fulsome in their appreciation: The pianist Paul Badura-Skoda told me his friend Jörg Demus performed with Tortelier in Buenos Aires. As the story goes, they were rehearsing a Bach sonata when Demus launched into an erudite explanation as to why his interpretation was stylistically inappropriate. Tortelier responded: "Most interesting…" before adding: "but I don’t feel it that way. I am so sorry!” Badura-Skoda was highly amused by what he regarded as the unanswerable reply. Demus, when I met him years later was less amused. "I suppose he might be an important cellist, but what kind of answer was that?"

Humour was never far from the surface with Tortelier. An engaging raconteur with impeccable timing, he doubtless could have been a comedian if his mother hadn’t decreed he be a cellist. He could also dance. I recall a virtuoso performance of the Charleston with his son Pascal, an occasion also marked by my attempted dancing with his daughter which amused him considerably. On television his humour was in full flow as he hilariously narrated a story to Bach’s C major Bourrées. A few months later, following a performance of Haydn’s D major concerto at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, a little boy knocked gingerly at the Green Room door: “Mr. Tortelier, what story do you think of in the last movement of the Haydn concerto?”  Without hesitation Tortelier launched into a colourful account of a children’s playground with merry-go-rounds, babies crying and mothers rushing around. As the boy backed out of the room mumbling almost inaudibly that he would always think of this when listening to the Haydn concerto, Tortelier turned to those remaining: “Zees boy, how little does he know… All I think about in the Haydn concerto is the danger of the shifts!”

He was a performer par excellence who thrived on adrenalin and the appreciation of his audience, but his extrovert showmanship co-existed with a sober awareness of his strengths and weaknesses. His cello compositions reflect his imaginative and innovative approach to left hand technique. He bowed with the refinement of a fiddler, but admired the fluidity of Fournier’s bow arm, recalling that when Fournier once told him he wished he had his left hand he replied: “and I wish I had your right!” It was Casals however whom he idolised, firmly of the belief that his stature as cellist and musician was unique in relation to everyone, past and present.

His pupils were immediately aware that to be a “mere” cellist was not enough. When they followed him to Ma’abarot, a kibbutz in Israel where he lived for a year, he enquired whether they wanted to study “technique” or “musicianship”. When they opted unanimously for technique he reportedly replied: “Very well, we shall study technique……and tell me, musically everything is OK?”

He was a musician to his fingertips, undoubtedly a showman, but not in a way that compromised the integrity of his musicianship. I remember him poring over Don Quixote at the piano, dissecting it without recourse to the score in an illuminating analysis of Strauss’ genius. Bach however was his lifelong passion. He belonged to the camp that was convinced Bach would have welcomed the expressive possibilities afforded by the modern bow. In his own words: “One must be a purist, not a puritan”, which is perhaps not a bad epitaph for the man himself.


reprinted from London Cello Society


Issue: Spring 2014

TV interview


TV interview of Richard Markson by Fabrizio Ferrari


Cello Music Editions

A collection of music scores edited by Richard Markson