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Joseph HAYDN (1732–1809)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in C, Hob. VIIb:1 [24:30]
Cello Concerto No. 2 in D, Hob. VIIb:2 [23:07]
Adagio Cantabile from Symphony no. 13 in D, Hob. I:13 [9:16]
Natalie Clein (cello)
Recreation – Großes Orchester Graz/Michael Hofstetter
rec. live, 24–25 April 2017 (No. 1), 13–14 November 2017 (No. 2), 14 November 2017 (Adagio)

Natalie Clein’s is not a name one would normally associate with either Haydn or with ‘historically informed’ performance, and this disc clearly represented an exciting new departure for her. As she explains in her booklet note, she took the trouble to “experiment with my 1777 Guadagni and bring it closer to the spirit of Haydn’s sound world by playing on gut strings rather than my usual steel. I also chose a lighter bow than I usually use, again in the hope that the contemporary articulation would be easier to achieve”. Not only that, Clein decided to follow eighteenth-century practice also by improvising her cadenzas – both of which certainly sound ‘right’, if on the short side and not especially memorable.

Overall, the result is something of a triumph. Clein’s gut-stringed sound has an appealingly light, gentle mellowness, and allows her both to spin shapely, lyrical lines and to invest her playing with plenty of nuance and a wide range of colour. Moreover such period manners are stylishly supported and abetted by Michael Hofstetter and his bizarrely named Recreation – Großes Orchester Graz, an ensemble founded in 2002, and whose previous discs have included repertoire as diverse as Mozart castrato arias (with Valer Sabadus – review) and an anthology of music by Alexander Lokshin (review). All the music-making is characterized by Clein’s trademark passionate commitment, but it is never showy or self-indulgent. This approach pays dividends not least in the concertos’ slow movements, which are here performed with a winning, often hushed, fluency that sounds as natural as breathing and makes one delight again in the sheer joyousness of Haydn’s inspiration. These stylistically sensitive performances also made me more aware than I had been before of the significant differences of musical ethos that exist between the two concertos – the first (for some reason placed second on the disc), from the 1760s, here sounds much more influenced by the ‘gallant’ Italian tradition of Vivaldi or Boccherini than does the more unequivocally ‘classical’ second concerto, from 20 or years or so later.

On the debit side, the disc’s playing time is not very generous. One can certainly understand Oehms’s decision to limit themselves to the only two cello concertos attributed to Haydn which are undeniably authentic; but to supplement these only with a single concertante piece lasting less than ten minutes is a policy that doesn’t exactly enhance the disc’s competitiveness. This listener at least would love also to have heard Clein play a concerto by, say, C. P. E. Bach, whom you could imagine her really relating to. That said, the slow movement from Haydn’s Symphony no. 13 (from 1763), which is almost entirely dominated by the solo cello playing in a high register, is well worth hearing out of context. Indeed, its heart-easing main theme seems if anything to belong more in the opera house than in a symphony – and, of course, Clein takes its ‘cantabile’ marking with all the grace and seriousness it deserves.

Alongside its relatively short measure, the desirability of this disc is reduced a little by slight variations in recording quality between the two concertos (taped at live performances some seven months apart), and – for me at least – by loudly enthusiastic audience reaction at the conclusion of each work, which one feels might with benefit have been edited out. For these reasons, and for all Clein’s beguiling combination of sophistication and affection, one could not say that this disc eclipses the formidable competition that now exists in this repertoire. It in no way trumps Alisa Weilerstein’s fizzing recent disc, for example, which also includes Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht as an unpredictable, but generous and wholly successful coupling (review).

That said, I would not like to be without Natalie Clein’s refreshing take on the Haydn concertos, and will for certain return to it with delight. Maybe, in the end, this disc’s niche in the market will be as a lovable, characterful supplement to a trusted ‘mainstream’ version of these works. I, for example, have long cherished Heinrich Schiff’s version from the 1980s with Marriner and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields; and if you have that or something like it, then you are likely to relish also being able to turn to Clein’s stimulating and wholly valid alternative view.

Nigel Harris

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