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Natalie Clein - The Romantic Cello
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65 (1845) [24:48]
Polonaise Brillante, Op. 3 (1829) [9:01]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19 (1901) [35:17] 
Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14 (1912) [6.12]
Natalie Clein (cello); Charles Owen (piano)
rec. 17-20 May 2006, St Paul’s School, Barnes, London
EMI CLASSICS 3669382 [75:21]

EMI has given this disc the title ‘The Romantic Cello’. This is the kind of description that encourages the potential purchaser to expect a selection of charming miniatures. In fact Natalie Clein and her accomplished pianist Charles Owen perform two of the great sonatas of the duo literature, works that gain in strength and reward with each new hearing. And these artists will certainly offer substantial rewards to those who choose to acquire this appealing recording, which provides excellent sound and technical assurance in equal measure.
In fact the weakness of this release lies in the packaging rather than the performances, and not just because of the inappropriate title. For it is one of those CDs that suffers at the hands of an over-zealous designer, since the movement headings and other details can only be read in tiny print against a florid and unsympathetic background. This dark Green ‘Victorian wallpaper’ design was no doubt chosen with the imagery of ‘The romantic cello’ in mind. To make matters worse, the otherwise excellent notes by John Warrack fail to mention the Chopin Polonaise Brillante, which is a pity. It is unlike EMI to fall prey to such poor editorial judgement, the design aspect of which serves no sensible purpose.
Rant over - on to the music. The sound perspective seems ideal for duo performances, since the pleasing cello tone and the piano detail are beautifully balanced. Charles Owen is a skilful pianist who is experienced in this repertoire, and it shows. For he has already recorded both sonatas for Somm (SOMMCD026 - see review) with Jamie Walton, giving performances which more than hold their own in distinguished recorded company.
The Rachmaninov Sonata has for some years been generously served in the recorded music catalogue, for example through the outstanding performance by Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax (Sony SK46486). It is a substantial work lasting more than 35 minutes across four movements, so performers need a secure structural awareness and a long-term vision in addition to a strong technique. Clein and Owen possess these talents and the range of colour they bring to the extended opening movement sets the standard for the whole. As the music progresses so too does its sense of purpose and direction, as Rachmaninov surely intended.
The Scherzo which follows has the drive and passion to suggest the dark forces that could preoccupy the composer, while the slow movement and finale have that special eloquence that lies at the heart of Rachmaninov’s style. The more straightforward approach of the beautiful Vocalise, the composer’s transcription of his own song without words, does merit the description ‘the romantic cello’.
Chopin’s opus numbers are not the most logical in the repertory; his Polonaise for cello and piano was written in 1829. It is an appealing piece, and at nine minutes not insubstantial, although the emotional voltage is not like that of the later Sonata. It was composed for the young Princess Wanda Radziwill and her father, and is a brilliant salon showpiece, deserving association with the description ‘the romantic cello’.
The Cello Sonata of 1845, however, is quite another matter. This is one of Chopin’s greatest works from the wonderful final phase of his tragically short career. Clein and Owen start out almost tentatively, but there is method in their restraint, since it allows for the eloquence and emotional range of the music to expand and explore its many shadings of mood. The phrasing is beautifully sensitive to the special nature of the music, as it is in the other movements too. The rhythms of the Scherzo are delivered with much sensitivity and shading, thanks to the recorded sound as much as the performance, while the opening theme of the slow movement has a wonderfully tender restraint of dynamic from both players. There have been some famous recordings of this piece, for example by Pierre Fournier and Jean Fonda (DGG 477 5939, from 1971) and by Mstislav Rostropovich (also DGG, 419 860 2, from 1980). While these rightly remain benchmarks, and project strong musical personalities to admirable effect, Clein and Owen prove themselves to be worthy interpreters of all this wonderful music.
Terry Barfoot


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