LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search

The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Is Natalie the new du Pre?

By Norman Lebrecht / September 19, 2007

Natalie Clein is the first English female cellist to record Elgar's concerto since Jacqueline du Pre made it her trademark in 1965, but she’s having to struggle with unsought comparisons to a tragic legend.

Du Pre, died 20 years ago this month of multiple sclerosis at the age of 42 and her recording of the Elgar concerto, a post-First War elegy, made it the world's favourite piece of English music, a two-million best-seller.

Clein is a long-haired, good-looking English cellist with wide-open eyes and a winning smile. Right, says a sharp suit at EMI, she’s the next Jacqueline du Pre. Nothing much Natalie could do about that.

Every cellist who tackles Elgar does so in Jackie's shadow, every English cellist all the more so. Over two decades, half a dozen have clutched at her mantle - Julian Lloyd Webber, Raphael Wallfisch, Steven Isserlis, Robert Cohen, Colin Carr, Alexander Baillie – but all of them are male and several are thinning on top. Clein, who is 30 and richly maned, is the first female Elgarian in 40 years and the marketing lads have gone into overdrive with sultry photographs, glossy ads and a viral dose of YouTube footage, leaving the artist bewildered and upset.

‘Good cellists take their time,’ is her personal motto. After winning BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1994, Clein spent years of quiet study in London and Vienna before she felt ready for the big time. Even now, she is more likely to be found playing chamber music with friends than concertos with famous orchestras. When EMI asked her to record the Elgar, she realised that she risked comparison with du Pre, but she hoped the differences would be obvious to intelligent listeners, as indeed they are.

Where Jackie was exuberant, impulsive, loud and frequently hard-toned in her epic recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir John Barbirolli, Natalie is wilfully understated, playing soft and slow against the vast power of the orchestral juggernaut. On first impression, she sounds almost too shy but as the ear attunes to her tone the interpretation sounds tenderly affecting and more in accordance with Elgar’s instructions than the strident, somewhat overheated du Pre.

Conducted by the avuncular Vernon Handley and accompanied by the much-improved Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, this is very much a performance for our own time – more conversational than declamatory, subtle and reflective rather than urgently prescriptive. I admire it more and more with repeated listening, warming to its simple humility.

Clein, when pressed, admits that, while she grew up with the du Pre recording, she never really liked it. ‘I don’t think we’re in the business any more of making iconic recordings,’ she says. ‘I can understand people wanting to compare me to her, and she was a role model for me as a powerful woman, but to describe me as the next Jacqueline du Pre is just silly. It’s a completely different world we live in today.’

That, however, is not how the record industry sees it. Selling records is, fundamentally, a cloning operation, a search for the next Callas, Heifetz, or Pavarotti. It is a process that stamps young artists with expectations they can never fulfil, crushing their individuality in a pre-cast mould. Various tenors have lost their way after being trailed as the new Pavarotti, the latest being Rolando Villazon who has cancelled the Met and Covent Garden for the rest of the year under some unexplained personal crisis.

Any rational person will recognise that du Pre was a unique performer whose public appeal is founded on her unrepeatable singularity. But the boys at EMI believe otherwise. They reckon that what works once works twice, so they branded Jackie’s halo onto the next English cellist down the line.

Clein is uncomfortable with that. ‘I have never gone in for PR – it’s just not me,’ she says. ‘For me it has always been about inner goals, about controlling my playing and serving the music. The other stuff is very shallow – it quickly depresses me.’

She decided this week to draw the line is at a YouTube DVD which shows her playing the Elgar with swinging hair in a cloud of white ice and red sunsets. ‘I want them to take that down,’ she tells me emphatically. Within 24 hours, EMI withdrew the video and apologised.

The experience has left her feeling bruised, and a bit used. ‘If people hear this record I want them to come and hear me live. If I make another record, I’d prefer to edit it from concert performances.’

Hers is the voice of a new generation, of musicians who are suspicious of all forms of packaging and want to revive music as unmediated communication. Natalie Clein was not yet born when Jacqueline Du Pre stopped playing. Her Elgar belongs to the present century, not to the nostalgic past. That is its strength. The rest is delusion.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


(c) La Scena Musicale 2001-2006