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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85 (1919) [28:25]
In Moonlight [3:16]
La Capricieuse, op.17 [4:46]
Romance, op.62 [5:47]
Salut d’Amour [2:58]
Chanson de Matin, op.15/2 [3:16]
Sospiri, op.70 [3:51]
Natalie Clein (cello)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. 28-29 May 2007, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 5 01409 2 [52:19] 


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 recording which 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 than this. 

Excellent recorded sound and a good balance between soloist and orchestra in the spacious acoustic of the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. 

In the 150th anniversary year of Elgar’s birth this recording of the Concerto does him proud.

Bob Briggs



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