Christopher Bunting at 80

The much-loved British cellist and former President of ESTA UK Christopher Bunting died in 2005, at the age of 81. The year before, Arco ran a special issue celebrating his 80th birthday, for which Ann Measures interviewed him about his life and teaching. Here is the original interview in full

Awarded MBE for services to Music in the Millennium Honours List, Christopher Bunting is a formidable presence on the international music scene. Die Welt has described ‘his highly developed musical comprehension and prodigious technique’. The Guardian has written, ‘Incontestably one of the world’s best half-dozen cellists’. Der Abend reported ‘the nobility of his pure tone, the dexterity of his left hand and the elegant bowing reminds one of Casals’; and a BBC announcement in 1972 said ‘...the distinguished cellist Christopher Bunting has broadcast countless times, has appeared on many concert platforms here and abroad, in concerts, in chamber music and recitals, so much so that he hardly needs any introduction’.
He has given the world or British premieres of a significant number of important works for cello, many of them written specially for him. He has published a seminal two-volume work on cello playing. Essay on the Craft of Cello Playing, his cello concerto, several books of studies, original compositions, arrangements for cello ensemble and important articles. His work as an adjudicator, teacher, coach and conductor is equally esteemed.
Yet in conversation it is Christopher’s keen mind and dry sense of humour delivered with completely straight face which comes to the fore.
AM Christopher, I’ve just been listening again to your recordings of Bach Suites – your playing must have had tremendous influence on cellists for the last fifty years.
CB Really? I’ve been too busy tuning up.
I’ve heard from friends who, way back in the 50s vividly remember your recitals at their schools – places like Rugby and Cheltenham – where they were influenced to become musicians by hearing your playing.
Well after my Wigmore Hall recital things took off rather and I was quite busy after that.
That recital was with Gerald Moore?
Yes, he was wonderful. I remember him saying at the rehearsal: ‘You’re not wanting to talk much are you?’ It was a great relief! The programme? – Bach’s First Cello suite, Beethoven’s A major Sonata, Brahms’s F major and the Debussy Sonata.
This was after you had studied with Maurice Eisenberg and Pablo Casals?
It was. I had studied with Eisenberg whilst I was at Cambridge [reading Music with Thurston Dart 1944–47], at his summer masterclasses in New Jersey and Portugal and whenever he visited England. He was a great follower of Casals and with his preparation I was able to take up a Boise Scholarship to study with Casals in Prades. We drove there through France in my ancient Rover and stayed for a year, living very simply in one room cooking on a gas ring, that sort of thing.
How did he work?
Casals’ playing was the perfect marriage between instinct and calculation and he applied this equally in his teaching. In lessons he would normally speak very little, a few words but acute. Sometimes he would demonstrate or talk more freely but his presence had a magical effect. Also there was a sort of kindness about his authority – he was not a bully. Although he was very short of stature yet he had great power to command attention. Everyone was drawn to him. The following year when he started the Prades Festival I was invited to go back to play in the orchestra. The other cellists were Paul and Maude Tortelier and Nelson Cooke. It was then, with this orchestra, that he recorded the Schumann Concerto.
Why were you so keen to go to Casals?
He influenced all aspects of cello playing and as I said, everyone was drawn to him. I had heard him playing the Schumann Concerto when I was six. It made a tremendous impression on me. I had recently started to play the cello. My mother was a fine musician – cellist, pianist, singer, organist - and I had previously begun the piano when I was five. That evening she took me to the Queen’s Hall, we sat in the middle of the front row – right under the cello spike! When Casals walked on to the platform everyone in the orchestra rose. He had enormous authority. The impact of that performance and from such close quarters was very great.
Did your mother teach you?
I remember a Miss Muriel Gibb to start and when I was about ten at the ‘Hampstead Conservatoire’ in Swiss Cottage I had aural lessons with a Signor Columbatti. I apparently already had ‘absolute pitch’ but we did all sorts of ear training. Then when the war started I was evacuated to Porlock and I had no lessons but for an occasional trip to Bristol to Ivor James. There was war service – I was in the Royal Norfolk Regiment, posted to ‘Stars in Battle Dress’ – and then at Cambridge from 1944. I played all the time in all sorts of student concerts. That was when I started to work with Eisenberg.
Was your father also a musician?
No, he was a civil engineer in Bombay but he was very gifted. He could improvise on the piano for hours and come home from a performance of a concert or opera and play through most of the music he’d heard from memory. What’s more he was impatient with me if I could not do the same.
That must have been difficult for you. But did it then influence your attitude to your students? You’ve been described as a perceptive teacher able to adjust your approach to fit the problems experienced by each individual and offering different solutions to each one. In your masterclass it has been observed that you can be critical without ever being destructive so that no student is allowed to look inept. I’ve heard from a number of your students how thoughtful and imaginative you are when teaching – manuscript books tailor-made for the lesson with weekly exercises specially devised, for example. Others have talked of your understanding and communication skills and about the major influence you have had on their artistic and intellectual development. Joanna Borrett, for example, told me of your discussion on Stanislavsky, the great Russian actor, and on the whole question of being an artist and creating an artistic performance. She also told me how you worked with the newly formed Peterborough String Orchestra. She said your conducting and rehearsing were superb, dynamic and inspiring!
Well it was good to work with them and I played several concertos with them too – I remember the Haydn C major and I did the first performance of my Cello Concerto with them in 1985. I think it works best as a chamber work although I also did it for the BBC with the Langham Chamber Orchestra with Christopher Adey conducting.
You’ve broadcast a great deal including other first performances.
I suppose I have. The Gerald Finzi Concerto was broadcast from the Proms after its premiere at the Cheltenham Festival in 1955, with Sir John Barbirolli and later with Sir Adrian Boult. I played the Alan Rawsthorne Concerto in 1967 with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the Philharmonia, and then I did concertos by Francis Routh, Hans Werner Henze – his Ode to West Wind – Shostakovich’s E flat Concerto (a marvellous piece), Hindemith’s Kammerkonzert, Elliot Carter’s Sonata.
And standard repertoire?
Yes, the Elgar, Dvorák, Schumann, the Haydns, and all the Beethoven Sonatas, Brahms, Bach, Debussy and so on. The Elgar was recorded with Adrian Boult and the LPO for BBC Overseas network, and Kol Nidrei I recorded for EMI.
I’ve heard rumours of your recordings of quartets or trios in which you’ve played ALL the parts!
Oh that’s a bit exaggerated – I did things like that for fun. There was the Archduke Trio, for example, where I played the piano part, then added the cello and then the violin holding it like a cello – but it wasn’t for a broadcast. I did play the Brahms E minor Sonata that way though. There was a series of programmes in the late 1970s called Double Exposure on the BBC Third Programme devised by the producer Anthony Friese-Greene. I recall Norbert [Brainin] played both parts of a Mozart Duo. Thea King did the Brahms F minor Clarinet and Piano Sonata and I can remember sitting alone in the Concert Hall in Broadcasting House playing the opening chords of the Brahms op.38 piano part ‘in space’ as it were. You see I had to record the piano part first imagining the cello tune of the beginning and putting the chords under it! When it was broadcast it was introduced with a spoof ‘discussion’ between the cellist and the pianist – arguing about various points of interpretation.
Christopher, chamber music has been an important part of your music life I know. You’ve had a number of duos and trios.
I have, notably a duo with Peter Wallfisch – we did many recitals and broadcasts together and played all the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas and many modern pieces – and another time with Yonty Solomon. Then I had trios at different times with Maria Lidka and Franz Reizenstein, with Raymond and Anthea Cohen – we were called The Bartholdy – and with Olive Zorian and later Sir William Glock.
So it’s not surprising that your quartet and ensemble coaching is legendary. I’ve heard about your upside-down violin playing skills in relation to filling in parts of Haydn quartets! – and I’ve seen bowing exercises and very interesting spatial exercises which you called ‘Brain Massage’. Did you write these for your work with any particular groups?
Well I did some of them for Pro Corda where I taught in the early years and for the Youth Music Centre String Orchestra in north London with which I worked for a long time. They gave some marvellous performances. I wrote a String Quartet Study too. And I’m very fond of my Fugue for Six Cellos and then there are some Bourrées from Bach’s Third Cello Suite arranged for string orchestra. Many of those young players are now playing professionally.
You’ve been very much involved with the International Workshops.
These were started in America by Dr Gerald Fischbach and I have given classes with them for years all over the world, Australia, USA, Holland, France, you name it... They were very rewarding and I have many students in those countries. And then I must not forget the numerous ‘Summer Music’ courses in which I was involved, run by Murray Gordon. These were for amateur players who really worked hard at my Cello Exercises and ensemble pieces. I always gave a recital and concert with the other tutors (Madeleine Mitchell was sometimes there and Chris Wellington), and my Dutch students used to come over for a masterclass which was interesting.
Perhaps it was from these courses that another great performance originated – I mean the one with the orange?
Oh, that’s The Swan! Yes, the piano part has a rather innovative version of Saint-Saëns and I play the Swan by rolling an orange or a paint roller on the strings. You can get quite accurate pitch and vibrato – I call it the ‘Violarolla’.
This interview was first published in vol.29 no.3 of Arco, in 2004. ESTA UK members receive four copies of Arco a year as part of their membership. Find out more about member benefits here

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