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Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)
Viola Sonata (1919) - alternative version for cello and piano [22:05]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Serenade, H23 (1903) [2:41]
Spring Song H104 No 2 (c1912) [2:18]
Scherzo H19a (c1902) [3:42]
Cello Sonata, H125 (1913-17) [21:03]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Six Studies in English Folk Song (1926) [8:09]
Natalie Clein, cello; Christian Ihle Hadland, piano
rec 2017, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London
HYPERION CDA68253 [60:07]

Notwithstanding the fact that Natalie Clein has made some splendid discs for Hyperion over recent years (a superb Kodaly recital with Julius Drake comes to mind, likewise a disc containing Bloch’s Schelomo and Voice in the Wilderness with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Volkov) I have to say I was a just a little underwhelmed by this issue. To be fair, this impression is undoubtedly shaped by my own subjective feelings about the two major pieces that constitute the core of this album. Natalie Clein herself presents a perfectly legitimate rationale for the programme itself and for her approach to both sonatas. She cites the legendary Rostropovich/Britten account of the Bridge work as being an influence; I also got to know the piece via that same source. It glows in their account – it has searing power, but Britten was there to ensure that there was both poetry and space for reflection in this timeless reading of his old teacher’s work. Clein also refers to the viscerality of the Clarke ‘cello’ sonata, a title she not unreasonably justifies as Clarke herself had a flexible view of the piece which depended on whether viola or cello was involved. I appear to have been conditioned to hear it primarily as a viola sonata (Clarke was a violist herself) and I really didn’t like the heft of the cello sound when I first encountered the work in its incarnation for that instrument despite the best efforts of Raphael Wallfisch and John York on their Lyrita disc (my colleague Gary Higginson offered some fascinating personal insights in his review of this disc)

As far as the Frank Bridge sonata is concerned Clein and Hadlund face further stiff competition from the likes of Steven Isserlis and Connie Shih on a recent BIS issue (The Cello in Wartime - review) as well as a fine version by Paul Watkins and Ian Brown on a disc of Bridge chamber works played by the Nash Ensemble (also on Hyperion - review). In those accounts too, moments of repose are illuminated; they are sometimes rather too cursorily brushed aside here. Isserlis has a more refined approach to tone colour than Clein although her virtuosity is unquestionably impressive. Christian Ihle Hadlund matches her valiantly and while I am sure some will find their shaping and conception of the sonata valid, to my mind it addresses the catastrophe of World War I, itself rather more than reflecting upon its consequences, where the other accounts I’ve mentioned seem more emotionally balanced and ultimately more probing.

I have come to view Rebecca Clarke’s work as a masterpiece of the viola and piano repertoire as I believe it incorporates an array of autumnal colours and textures that seem particular to that instrument, a view reinforced by Ellen Nisbeth’s captivating BIS account from 2017, a disc I myself had the pleasure of reviewing. In my view this essence somehow eludes both Wallfisch and York (although I found Clarke’s Rhapsody for cello on their disc completely engrossing) and Clein and Hadlund here. Clein’s playing is never less than committed, but the rather fragile spirituality that frequently underpins Nisbeth’s reading is conspicuous by its absence here. On the other hand, Paul Hindmarsh, in a typically well-researched and thought provoking note contends that the work’s “emotional narrative….. is enhanced by the more powerful and passionate tone of the cello”, although fragility seems to me to be a big part of that narrative too, especially in the light of Hindmarsh’s revelations about Clarke’s tempestuous relationship with her father, and in my view the viola perhaps better expresses that aspect than the cello. Good though it is to see Clarke’s body of work making real headway in terms of recordings, to my ears this cello account of what is probably her masterpiece is ultimately too brusque for my liking.

My colleague Jonathan Woolf has drawn some interesting conclusions about the timings of these sonatas on this disc. They are indeed considerably faster here than on all the competing accounts of this repertoire I have been able to trace, but this is not simply a matter of speed; nor am I implying for a moment that Natalie Clein is using these two fine pieces purely as vehicles for her own unquestionable virtuosity. Ultimately readers will decide for themselves whether these fresh and invigorating readings work for them. I found them both rather provocative, if not a little confrontational; perhaps I would have enjoyed them more had I been in my twenties or thirties…

Although they are not the headline works in this recital I found Clein and Hadlund’s approach to Bridge’s delightful pre-war miniatures and Vaughan Williams’ unpretentious Six Studies in English Folksong much more agreeable, both players highlighting the nostalgia and salon-like sensibilities of the former, while the tenderness implicit in the first five of Vaughan Williams’ lovely ruminations is very much to the fore. Hyperion’s recording is superbly balanced – at the points where Clein’s playing in the sonatas is especially assertive or virile it is never allowed to dominate Hadlund’s piano.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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