Years before Elvis and his famous Sun Records label-mates were dubbed the “Million Dollar Quartet,” Gregor Piatigorsky, Arthur Rubinstein, and Jascha Heifitz were hailed as the “Million Dollar Trio,” but they recorded and played together quite regularly. Piatigorsky was the first of the trio to take his final curtain call in 1976, yet his teachings and recorded body of work influenced every celebrated cellist who followed him. Writer-director-co-producer Murray Grigor & editor-cinematographer-co-producer Hamid Shams profile the revered classical musician in The Cellist: The Legacy of Gregor Piatigorsky, which is now available on DVD.
Piatigorsky was born in Ekaterinoslav, Russia (now Dnipro, Ukraine) to a Jewish family in the year 1903—obviously an awkward time to come of age, with 1917 looming. He was working professionally at a young age, but the cellist was forced to escape Lenin’s dictatorship to study with the caliber of teachers his talent required. Despite finding success in Berlin and Paris, the National Socialist advance across Europe forced Piatigorsky and his wife to hastily immigrate to America. However, they did not have it nearly as rough as most refugees, because there were indeed advantages to be married to a Rothschild—as in the Rothschilds.
Their life in the United States was less dramatic, but enormously productive. It is rather amazing in this day-and-age to hear the overriding goal of Piatigorsky’s career was the popularization of the cello, but that just suggests how overwhelmingly he succeeded. Intriguingly, Piatigorsky and his wife also played critical roles as patrons of international chess competitions (which was very Russian of them).
Grigor & Shams take a largely conventional approach to documentary filmmaking, but they keep the pace and tone refreshingly lively. Shams also edits much of the footage together quite strikingly (including some evocative contemporary tracking shots of the sites of Piatigorsky’s historic triumphs). Plus, many of the tributes to the great cellist from his students and colleagues really are quite touching.