In 1994 Natalie Clein won the BBC Young Musician of the
Year competition with a truly miraculous account of the Elgar
Cello Concerto. After thirteen years – and for her first concerto
recording – she’s committed her interpretation to disk.
What was most exciting about her competition-winning
performance was that she had thought out her own interpretation
of the work. For the first time in many years, I heard the music
without the ghost of Jacqueline du Pré hovering somewhere in
the background. This morning, watching the video I made of that
performance, I was again struck by how personal her interpretation
was: and this from a 16 year old. Of course, du Pré was a similar
age when she first performed the work and she gave an equally
personal interpretation, but a very different one to Clein.
Listening to this new performance I was conscious of many of
the same interpretive nuances which Clein brought to the work
in 1994, together with a stronger sense of the purpose and direction
of the music. There are many fine things in this performance
such as Clein’s starting with a very strong and purposeful introduction
and throughout the first movement displaying a winsome, almost
world-weary, expression – just listen to the plaintive tone
she employs at the return of the opening theme; a truly magical
moment. The scherzo is a quicksilver headlong race with fabulous
virtuosity. The differences in interpretation between her two
performances are most noticeable in the last two movements.
The brief Adagio is very touching but in 1994, Clein played
the second half in a much more restrained way, which brought
out the pathos of the music to much greater effect. Like the
scherzo the fast music of the finale holds no terrors for Clein
but, again, it is in her earlier performance of the recollection
of the slow movement which finds more emotion and sadness and
truly seems to reach out to the essence of Elgar’s mind. In
this new performance these two sections are played in a much
more calculated way – as if the performer is more “knowing”
or worldly wise.
Accompanied by a magnificent Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Orchestra, conducted by the world’s greatest living Elgarian,
Vernon Handley – I defy you to prove me wrong - this is a superb
performance in every way. I guarantee that whilst listening
to Clein you will not once think of Jacqueline du Pré’s recording
with Barbirolli - wonderful as it is. It is a peerless interpretation,
and so is this. However, you should not be without the du Pré
is coupled with the Cockaigne Overture and Sea Pictures, sung
magnificently by Janet Baker (EMI Classics 0724356288652).
Clein makes the most of the little Romance, op.62, which
was originally written for bassoon and orchestra, treating it
as if it was a real concerto movement – something I’ve never
experienced before. Full marks to her.
Unfortunately, here endeth the good news.
The remaining five pieces are arrangements by Julian
Milone, and, in my opinion, he should have known better. In
Moonlight (also known as Canto popolare) is the quiet middle
section of the In the South Overture which contains a solo for
viola. Elgar was quite right in using this instrument, the music
suits it superbly. It does not suit the cello. Salut d’Amour
was written for piano and Chanson de Matin for violin and piano,
both were orchestrated by Elgar and they are the best kind of
salon music, but they do not suit this symphonic treatment.
La Capricieuse is a glorious miniature showpiece for violin
and piano which, in the hands of a fiddle player of the caliber
of Campoli, shows off the composer’s own instrument fabulously.
The runs, which sound quite natural and spontaneous on the violin,
seem laboured a couple of octaves lower on the cello. Finally,
Sospiri. Scored for strings with harp and organ (with an alternative
version for violin and piano) Sospiri is, in Michael Kennedy’s
words “…in the same world as the Adagio of the First Symphony”
and is “…a wounded heart-cry”. What it not is a piece for soloist
and orchestra. I can only assume that these arrangements were
made because of the versions Elgar himself made for solo instrument
and piano, but that is not a green light for anybody to change
their musical meaning as these versions do. I feel that Elgar
has been violated in these arrangements. Clein plays them for
all they are worth, and more, with the full tone she employs
for the Concerto but the stature of these pieces cannot stand
this kind of technicolour approach. I am sure they will please
many listeners but the fine performances of the Concerto and
Romance demand a better and more suitable coupling.
The cover of the booklet gave me cause for concern. Natalie
Clein is, without doubt, a very beautiful young woman but the
photo of her, clutching her cello, is really sub-‘lad’s mag’
stuff. I doubt if the readers of Loaded, FHM or GQ are going
to pop into the classical section of Virgin or HMV, see Clein
looking sultry with her cello and think “Coo, there’s a bird
I really fancy, must hear her interpretation of the Elgar. Gorrrr”.
Composer, performer, and we, the buying public, deserve better
Excellent recorded sound and a good balance between soloist
and orchestra in the spacious acoustic of the Philharmonic Hall,
In the 150th anniversary year of Elgar’s birth
this recording of the Concerto does him proud.