The Cellists That Time Forgot (Radio 3)

Modesty kept four great cellists out of the history books.

The Cellists That Time Forgot
BBC Radio 3

A documentary about four musicians "denied their rightful place in the cellistic hierarchy" was beautifully, solidly modelled. Julian Lloyd Webber considered four cellists - Felix Salmond, Milos Sadlo, Antonio Janigro and Leonard Rose - and asked why they aren't as celebrated as Pablo Casals, Pierre Fournier, Mstislav Rostropovich and Jacqueline du Pré.

Tactfully, curiously, Lloyd Webber introduced each of the players, and with contributions from music historians and conductors such as Kenneth Woods, a case was made for Salmond, Sadlo, Janigro and Rose, often using rare and unheard recordings. The programme was focused and specific. If someone described Rose's playing as "compact here" then that is precisely how it sounded.

Just as Salmond was "noble and contained" and Sadlo "a wonderful colourist" who "had huge hands; soft as a mushroom", Janigro, we were told, "looked like a hawk. Slim and swarthy - and see how it comes out in his playing. He is the thin man's cellist." How wonderful is that? Sadlo (born 1912, incredibly poor, driven to practise ten hours a day) had a uniquely "stretchy" way of phrasing things, "playing long notes without sagging - hear how he colours the sound with his fast, aristocratic vibrato: he speaks where others shout".

A recording of Shostakovich's piano trio aced this description. It was also incontrovertibly demonstrated that Salmond (born in 1888 into a family of singers) used vibrato to "spin the sound forward, always using his fat fingers to push and push the tone".

Any biographical detail was cinematic. Janigro (born in Milan in 1918 into a family of pianists, a chain-smoker with a whopping velocity in his bowing arm) would frequently take a train from Paris to Milan, when he was a student, looking for a carriage to practise in, only to be discovered playing by an agent who would burst into the carriage with a contract.

Leonard Rose (born into a family of American cellists) was once denied the chance to join the army by a doctor who had once seen him play ("A guy like you shouldn't be drafted. You are an artist.") We were then advised to comprehend the "clarity with which Rose begins his notes" during a recording of Brahms's Cello Sonata in F Major.

Sixty this year, Julian Lloyd Webber's speaking voice has some of the patience and spontaneous sympathy of Alain du Botton's (who always excels on the radio.) So when he asked his guests why none of these four great players were as well-remembered as they might be, there was a sadness in the question, as though Lloyd Webber was picturing careers inexplicably collapsing like jigsaws, without proper remembrance or understanding.

Nobody had much of an answer beyond “I think people can only remember one or two people at any given time" (and thus just reach for du Pré and Elgar) although somebody did suggest that each of the four lost cellists was relatively modest, an accomplished teacher, always in control, perhaps too much so. Ultimately it is - is it not? - impossible to say definitively why someone is the best; to entirely nail someone's weird magnetism or charisma. But this programme did really try, where so many others just sound so boringly general, like surveys or football commentary, perhaps interspersed with the occasional, small illumination. This was 45 minutes entirely free of blather.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Boris vs Ken