Elgar’s Cello Concerto is such a pillar of the instrument’s repertoire – do you remember when you were first introduced to the work?

For all the major works in the repertoire, the Dvořák and Elgar concertos, the Bach Solo Suites or the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas, it is almost impossible to identify a date of ‘discovery’ in the path of a young musician. However, I remember very well the moment I decided to study it seriously in order to attend a competition: I was 15 and I remember studying it for an entire summer by myself before having a lesson with my teacher. It was the first time I discovered, developed and tried to understand a major piece by myself.

Umberto ClericiUmberto Clerici. Photo © Laura Stanca

Elgar wrote the concerto towards the end of his life, and in the aftermath of the First World War – how did that effect his music in this work?

I am a firm believer [in recognising the importance of] the context in which the artists live. This work, in my opinion, is strongly influenced by the political situation in 1918, at the end of the most destructive war that humanity had ever experienced. Elgar was a perfect example of a Victorian gentlemen, with all the values and beliefs of the Empire. Here the historical context blends with the personal: Elgar was 61 and depressed by the effect of the war, and his beloved wife was sick. The Concerto has this melancholic character throughout the entire work, an element that the mellow sound of the cello describes perfectly. The last two minutes, a sort of extended recitativo, to me describe the uncertainty of the future, the premonition of a dark chapter for humanity. 

How has your relationship with this music evolved over the course of your career?

I hope it evolves every time, otherwise I would describe [my] artistic career as very poor. Elgar’s concerto is a masterpiece and, consequently, it has endless layers of meaning and multiple points of views to be looked at. I find the common denominator in my path is this: the better I know a piece (and here we are talking about a relationship of 20 years), the more I go back to the text and the composer’s will. At the beginning of the learning process there is always the desire to add personal modifications, to try to tweak passages in order to solve technical and performance problems, to add details on top of the recordings that we experienced when we were students. But at the end, the composer, if he is truly a genius like Elgar, is usually right and demands just a bit more trust and respect from musicians.

Are there any cellists whose interpretations of the work – on disc or in person – you’ve found particularly inspiring or interesting?

I find the first recording of the piece, dated 1928, with Elgar conducting and Beatrice Harrison at the cello, amazing. She didn’t perform the premiere (that apparently was a disaster) but the legend says that after she studied it very carefully with Elgar himself, he only wanted her in the solo role every time the piece was in the program. This recording is much less flashy and dramatic that more recent ones, but it describes so well the intentions of the composer, his being British and the values of beauty and integrity of that era.

Jacqueline du Pré’s recording with Barbirolli is of course the most famous one – how important was that release in the history of the Elgar concerto, and what is its legacy today?

Thanks to that recording the Concerto is one of the most famous pieces of classical music in the world, particularly in the English speaking world. The legacy is immense because of her playing, her myth, her example. But trying to copy her is impossible, many have tried and it always becomes a bad caricature…

Working as an orchestral musician as well as a soloist, you must surely have seen countless performances of the work from the cello section – what lessons have you learned about the concerto hearing it from that perspective?

Actually, I have played the Concerto from the solo part 25 to 30 times, but only once from the cello section, and that was revelatory. When you play only solo repertoire the tendency is to focus completely on your part, on the amount of notes, on solutions for technical challenges, on your tone, losing a bit of the general musical architecture. Most of the soloists, I noticed, don’t consider enough what the orchestra is playing around them and this limits the general interpretation of a piece. Elgar’s Cello Concerto is a ‘pure concerto’ (meaning the solo part is predominant and the orchestra mostly accompanies it) only in the second and third movement, while the first and the fourth are more of a sinfonia concertante with one obbligato instrument, the cello. Melodies and counter melodies pass by the entire orchestra, including, of course, the cello. Having a more ‘symphonic’ or ‘chamber music’ attitude I think helps immensely with the pace, the understanding, the clarity and also the dramatic arch of this magnificent piece.

What are the challenges for the soloist? And for the orchestra?

For the orchestra, the challenge is to be always part of the game, to contribute actively to the musical dialogue, even for the instruments like brass or timpani that are very far from the soloist and play very few notes in the piece. Elgar uses a very large orchestra but the instruments play all together only in three episodes, while the rest has an incredible variety of colours and combinations that transform the orchestra in a kaleidoscope.

For the soloist, there are several technical challenges: the Concerto requires agility and clarity in the second movement, a very lyrical sound and vibrato in the third, and a powerful tone in the last. But I find the most challenging aspect is confronting the tradition of performing a piece so famous, particular in an English speaking country as an Italian musician.

For you, what are the greatest pleasures of this music?

For me music is a time machine and a soul-teleport: when a performer, or even a listener, goes deep enough in the listening and understanding and they are able to be immersed completely in the music, our core aligns with the music and we are able to live other’s lives, others’ time and sensitivity, through it. What a privilege, being able to live in every moment of history and in the mind and heart of geniuses!

Umberto Clerici performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra at Llewellyn Hall, October 23 – 24.