“That wooden box with four strings was made by a genius.”
A new documentary argues it was played by a genius as well.
“The Cellist: The Legacy of Gregor Piatigorsky” (2018) explores the legacy of a man whose mission it was to popularize the cello.
Piatigorsky (1903-1976) is not a man whose name comes to the lips of people when you ask them to name a famous cellist. Yo-Yo Ma, they may say. Or maybe Mischa Maisky, or Steven Isserlis.
But without Piatigorsky, there would be no Ma, or Maisky, or Isserlis.
Through interviews with his past students (Isserlis, Nathaniel Rosen, Raphael Wallfish, among others), collaborators (conductors Michael Tilson Thomas and Zubin Mehta), and Piatigorsky’s own words, “The Cellist” takes us through “Grisha’s” extraordinary life.
Ma says in the film that reading the autobiography “Cellist” made him think of Piatigorsky as an action hero, taking his cello on adventures across the world.
Born in Ukraine, Piatigorsky first heard the cello at age 5. Two years later, his violinist father presented him with his first cello. Within a year, he was walking the streets of Ekaterinoslav with his cello strapped to his back looking for whatever gigs he could find, including accompanying silent films.
When his family moved to Moscow, he played for Vladimir Lenin as a young teenager following the 1917 Russian Revolution. At age 15, he became principal cellist with the Bolshoi Theater.
Piatigorsky and a group of musicians later fled Russia to Poland in a harrowing journey that involved crossing a bridge over a river at night, dodging bullets as they went.
The film then takes us to Germany, where at age 18, he was hired as principal cellist with the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler. It tells us of Grisha’s first trip to New York, two days before the stock market crash of 1929 that led to the Great Depression.
Adventure after adventure is told by those who knew Grisha best.
Highlights of the film are the impersonations of Piatigorsky by his students and friends, in particular Denis Brott, who takes us word-for-word through a phone conversation Piatigorsky had with composer William Walton, requesting (unsuccessfully) that he change the ending of his cello concerto to make it more dramatic.
“The Cellist” is made even richer with recorded conversations and videos of Piatigorsky’s performances. Watching his massive hands alternate between delicate passages and heavy, aggressive phrasing is a master class in itself.
The film’s opening line is delivered by Piatigorsky himself: “The cello is the richest instrument of all string instruments with more possibilities.” “The Cellist” reveals the possibilities that Piatigorsky opened to the cellists you now know by name and those who will follow in his giant footsteps.