Ever since she won two major competitions as a 16-year-old nearly two decades ago, Natalie Clein has had a reputation in her native Britain not just as one of the finest cellists going around but also as one of the most intelligent, a fact borne out in her extraordinary previous recording of music by Kodály. But that acclaimed disc – one of only a handful of commercial recordings she’s made in her entire career – was only a warm-up for this magnificent new CD of masterpieces for cello and orchestra by Bloch and Bruch.
In her succinct addition to the main liner notes, Clein describes Bloch’s “deep sense of longing and loneliness” – qualities which are more than demonstrated in a stunning reading of the immortal Schelomo. The very first notes on solo cello sear the soul, before burning their way deep down in a rich sound mix, and when Ilan Volkov fires up the BBC Scottish Symphony in the big tuttis it’s almost overwhelming.
Clein has a way of making the cello wailand keen like a lamenting voice drifting in from some windswept hill, wild and untamed in its spirit but with never a note out of place. And yet – and here’s the magnificence of it – there’s never any sentimentality within music filled with sentiment. This is emotional playing, undoubtedly, but of the most focused and musically acute kind, depicting, in Bloch’s own words, “the sorrow and the grandeur of the Book of Job, the sensuality of the Song of Songs.”
One hesitates to make the inevitable comparison with a certain other female British cellist from an earlier era, but just listen to the opening 90 seconds of the Prayer movement in Christopher Palmer’s string orchestra arrangement of From Jewish Life, and see if you’ve heard more deeply moving and technically sublime cello playing since du Pré and Barbirolli launched into Elgar. It’s the seriousness of purpose that makes it so compelling, but it’s never grim. Rather, it’s human – a fact accentuated by Clein’s heavy breathing throughout, which may put off some listeners.
That impediment aside, there are times when the sheer beauty of the playing will make you cry. As for Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, the closer and only non-Bloch work on the disc, it too has that insistent yearning that characterises the overall approach to this wonderful CD, recorded in Glasgow in just two days of what surely was pure inspiration.