I was first introduced to Maud Tortelier when aged thirteen my mother had accompanied me to Paris for a lesson with her husband. She thanked my mother for looking after him in Glasgow.  “It was a pleasure”, said my mother. Glancing up at her husband who towered over her diminutive frame, she fixed my mother with a knowing stare: “Not such a pleasure!” was her qualified response delivered with a twinkle in her eye.

Maud Martin Tortelier

The twinkle in her eye was the key to many things. The Torteliers enlivened every conversation with humour: He, the actor, comedian, marvellous raconteur; She, contributing the impish sense of fun. That’s when they weren’t arguing of course, which they did frequently, colourfully and vociferously.

Maud was his muse - a fount of love, wisdom and strength that liberated his flamboyantly creative imagination; but with the capacity to bring him back to Planet Earth when required. Although as a cellist she possessed uniquely precious qualities of her own, she willingly subjugated her professional ambitions to those of her husband. She was fond of telling the story of how it all began:

The Premier Prix - the final exam before graduation at the Paris Conservatoire - included a ‘Morceau Imposé’, a new composition that none of the candidates could have studied beforehand. In Maud’s final this was provided by Paul Tortelier. It was an acrobatic piece requiring a large hand to facilitate wide extensions in thumb position. Maud’s hand, as she never missed an opportunity to remind us in later years, was small! Her chances presumed scuppered, her classmates lined up to commiserate. One member of the jury however - the composer - captivated by the graceful abandon with which, by necessity, she elegantly leapt around the instrument, preferred her playing to the others. The rest is history.

She idolized her husband as a cellist, although the idolatry did not extend to working with him.  Her earliest cellistic influence, notably in the elegant fluidity of her bow arm and mellowness of tone, was from Pierre Fournier with whom she studied initially at the Conservatoire.  Shortly after her marriage she once again approached Fournier for lessons. “But my dear”, he exclaimed, “You have Paul!” to which she replied: “I cannot possibly study with HIM!” Not that this in any way dampened her ability to offer her opinion, solicited or otherwise. I was turning pages for Paul’s Erato recording of the Vivaldi sonatas when suddenly Maud appeared from the recording box gesticulating: “But use your third finger, for God’s sake!”

Paul relied heavily on his wife’s opinion. When prior to his recording the Bach Suites she advised him to go back to the drawing board and relearn them with metronome and without vibrato, he did as instructed! On another occasion, sharing my bemusement at the continued success of one of his celebrated cello compatriots he remarked wistfully that his colleague simply had not had the advantage of a wife who was a cellist!

Following Paul’s death, Maud found her professional activities curtailed. As she jested that she had been buried with her husband, we were privileged to entice her to London for a series of master classes. These included Ševčík’s 40 Variations for which Trinity College of Music’s entire strings department had been mobilised into participation. I vividly recall her transformation of these exercises into music. “You must make musique with the technique!” was her constant refrain, as she provided particular insight into the organic fusion of timing, phrasing, breathing and body language.

Less accustomed to master classes than her husband, she insisted on advance knowledge of the repertoire to be performed. When without warning a student substituted the Elgar concerto for what had originally been programmed, she fretted about her unpreparedness. In the event, without reference to the score, she demonstrated the concerto compellingly and movingly. Later over dinner when I put to her that she clearly knew the work well, her eyes moistened as she explained how she had always loved the concerto but had never had the opportunity to perform it.

I am no impresario but I busied myself on the phone to Brazil. Later that year the Rio International Cello Encounter was planning a tribute to Paul Tortelier with Maud as the guest of honour. Already scheduled was his Double Concerto. “Could she also play Elgar?” “Only if she performs it in the same concert”, I was informed. It would be a tour de force that some of us worried might prove too much for her, but she accepted.

She was not happy to discover at the last minute that the concert would be televised live throughout Brazil, but it was a spectacular success. Her playing was compelling,  the poetic lyricism of her Elgar; and the Double Concerto,  in which I was tasked with substituting for her husband - a true homage to his legacy. As we were leaving the stage of Sala Cecília Meireles to tumultuous applause, she sighed contentedly. “He” would have been pleased, she affirmed, before adding that this would be her last concert - and it was.

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Reprinted from the London Cello Society Newsletter - Issue: Spring 2016

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