A decade or so ago, a young cellist, who some years before that had been BBC Young Musician of the Year, joined the ensemble of the Leicester International Festival. Her name was Natalie Clein and to all who had ears it rapidly became clear that here was an outstanding artist. But it wasn’t just that. What made her a very special musician was the rapport she created with her audience, how she drew them in to share her own enthusiasms. She seemed to live music body and soul in a quite natural manner, unlike for instance the flamboyances of some, in which the performer becomes more important than the composer. Because of happy domestic events, for her Leicester audience at least she has been less in evidence recently so there was eager anticipation at the prospect of her return to play a concert devoted to two of Bach’s cello suites. Not a seat was to be had in the hall.
Yet the concert nearly did not happen. Prior to it, for a whole week she had been indisposed, that dread word that concert promoters use for someone being ill and not about to turn up. Seeing her before the concert, it was clear what an effort it was going to take to complete the hour of playing. Indeed , I felt in most circumstances the concert would undoubtedly have been cancelled but here very touchingly there was an absolute determination to fulfil the engagement. For all that, and despite the programme being altered to one Bach Suite, the famous short Casals’ Song of the Birds and finishing with Britten’s Cello Suite No.3 , a programme I have to say which seemed to me every bit as demanding as the original, I really had serious worries whether she was going to be able to get to the end.
What followed made such worries ridiculous. From the very moment when the bow first met the string one was treated to some of the most intense music making imaginable. One hears much about the transformative effect of great music. Well, here it was in front of one, not a trace of frailty. As readers of the Diary will know, I am not exactly a signed up member of the Bach Numero Uno club and yet the performance of the Cello Suite No.1 had an impetus which simply swept one along. Constantly was one reminded, as one often is not in less overtly expressive readings, that dance is central to the Suites. Particularly memorable was the vigour of the Courante and of the final Gigue. This fervent performance had me pondering my own inconsistency of response when reacting to live music-making . At a concert only a few months ago I found much to enjoy in Bach playing very different to this indeed! But then that is one of the delights of listening to an ephemeral live performance. In the pleasure of the moment that can never be heard again objectivity tends to evaporate, and increasingly I feel that is as it should be.
Nothing better could have followed the Bach than Casals’ simple, quiet yearning for peace and justice in his homeland that was so out of his reach for the last forty years of his long life. Here the playing was of such intensity that one felt the audience being compelled to hold its breath almost throughout its two and a half minute length.
So we moved on to Britten’s Cello Suite No. 3 . If one has to go on the number of recordings these Suites have received in recent years, they have made their way to the centre of the cello repertoire. One can see why. Britten’s muse was very often aroused to greatness in composing for a particular performer, and nowhere more so than in the case of Rostropovich, just about the most astonishing cellist of the mid to late 20c. Throughout this work based on Russian material his virtuosity unlocked the composer’s imagination to create an astonishing range of sounds, from passages in which it is like listening to a Russian choir, to others where there is the most wonderful sense of wit and fantasy, to sardonic moments as in the March, reminding one that Britten had in later life through Rostropovich struck up a friendship with Shostakovich. Miraculously all of these potentially disparate elements somehow are felt to be part of an ongoing exploration of the basic material, which push to the ultimate and almost beyond the cello’s possibilities as an instrument. Finally, as it were, things seemed to come out into the open and merge in the achingly sad and beautiful Passacaglia, the final 10 minutes of the work. It was written when Britten was already seriously ill and played finally by the dedicatee only a year or so before the composer’s death. Such an impact did Natalie Clein’s performance have that one could easily understand why Rostropovich after the composer’s death in his grief could never bring himself to play this work again, a work he had described, when receiving it from the composer, as a ‘work of genius’. All one can say about the performance here is that it fully communicated in its range and power the truth of that judgment.
And as if this was not enough, the rapturous audience was given two encores, two little pieces by Kurtag in which notes are somehow held almost in suspension between silences, a kind of musical cleansing of the palette at the end of a fine meal. By which time we all knew why Leicester thinks Natalie Clein to be a very special musician and hopes she will come back again very soon.