Born January 3, 1916; died May 13, 2011
“Few musicians have been more admired or venerated by their colleagues than the Beaux Arts’ outstanding cellist, Bernard Greenhouse, who commands the highest respect as teacher, soloist and chamber music performer.” So opined the pages of Gramophone in April 1978, by which time this was hardly a controversial view. And yet the esteem in which the music world in general held the American cellist had only increased by the time of his death this week, in his sleep at the age of 95.
He started to build a reputation, despite his father’s misgivings about music as a profession, as principal cellist of the CBS Orchestra and then during World War II when he played with the US Navy Symphony Orchestra. His teachers included Emanuel Feuermann, Diran Alexanian and – although Greenhouse had to sail to France and knock on his door to get him to agree – the great Pablo Casals.
A keen and inspirational teacher himself, it was as a founder member of the Beaux Arts Trio that he became best known. Alongside the pianist Menahem Pressler and (initially) the violinist Daniel Guilet, Greenhouse built one of the world’s most admired ensembles. Reviewing one of their very earliest recordings in November 1957, of the Ravel Piano Trio, Gramophone called their account “magnificent…the ensemble and spirit of these players finer than on the rival disc with its very distinguished soloists [Rubinstein, Heifetz and Piatigorsky, no less].”
Interviewed in the pages of Gramophone in 1985 (two years before his retirement from the group) to mark the 30th anniversary of the Beaux Arts Trio, Greenhouse noted the disparate styles of the former members. “We were,” he recalled, “really quite surprised when the three of us, who came from quite different backgrounds, set off such immediate reaction. Guilet was from the French school, Menahem from the German one of Egon Petri, and I studied with the English cellist Felix Salmond.” Nevertheless, noted the interviewer, they were all so perfectly in synch that the conversation moved around evenly, with pace and yet without any interruptions or false starts.
In that same article, Greenhouse remembered a magical moment with his colleagues. “When we were a young trio we once decided we’d have an evening of chamber music and invite [the composer and critic] Virgil Thomson to come and listen. And he had quite a different idea from us of how the first movement of the Ravel should go. He thought of it as light, dancing, much faster than we saw it and he started dancing around the room to prove it!” It was a typical reflection from a cellist as known for his winning, benign personality as his towering music-making.