The Bach Project: An Interview with Natalie Clein

Since winning the BBC Young Musician in 1994, cellist Natalie Clein has performed with eminent orchestras and conductors such as Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé, and was invited to join the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme in 1999. She is currently embarking upon a Bach project that involves performing the entire cello suites, and brought her to Oxford in both March and June. I spoke to her before her June concert about the project, teaching, and artistic collaboration.

Your Bach project is taking in a few cities, not just Oxford. When did you start planning this idea to do the complete Bach cello suites in a series of places, and what inspired you?

I’ve always planned to play all six suites. They’re one of the big pinnacles (if you can have more than one!) of the ‘cello repertoire, and I’d played four out of the six for many years but not tackled the E flat, which was no. 4, or no. 6, the D major, so that had kind of stopped me from putting on all six in one go. Then finally I was invited to do all six last year in a festival in London, and I thought ‘now’s the time, really’, and so I’ve started, but this is certainly just the beginning of a journey. Famously, Pablo Casals studied and rediscovered the pieces as performance pieces at the beginning of the 20th century, and he discovered them when he was 12, and it took him until he was 30 years old to dare to perform them in public, and then he did so for the rest of his life. When he was 96, he was still playing them, so they’re the Bible for us, really. Now that I’ve started, I think I’m quite hooked, I get really excited. I haven’t done that many [performances] yet, this is only the second time that I’m playing the 6th suite tonight. It’s so exciting, because even though I’m alone on the stage, it’s sort of like a conversation with all these voices, with all the counterpoint, with all the ideas that Bach has, with all the technical innovations and exciting, unique, genius ideas that he has with these pieces. It’s definitely not a start and finish project, it’s the beginning of a journey with them.


What do you think is unique about Bach as a composer for the ‘cello?

Well, there’s one thing that’s unique, which was that he was the only one that did it. Until the 20th century, he was really the only one, as far as we know, who wrote these kind of masterworks for the solo ‘cello. And we all will agree that he’s not just one of the greatest composers, but greatest geniuses of anything who ever lived, so we’re really lucky as ‘cellists that we have this repertoire. It’s astounding really, because he’s writing for a single voice most of the time. We can’t play chords as well as a violin, even, and we certainly can’t play chords in the way that a keyboard can, and we certainly aren’t an orchestra, or a choir, or a chamber ensemble. Yet he manages to create a completely homogeneous and complete world where we don’t miss anything. We don’t miss the bass line, we don’t miss anything in the middle, and this is all done through suggested, implied harmonies a lot of the time. So you’re carrying these ideas along in your mind, ‘oh, I’m in C major’, and suddenly he turns a corner and he’s in D major. It’s music that’s understandable for everybody, from a person that doesn’t have much musical education but simply loves the sound of the suites and the emotional weight of them to music scholars. Everybody finds them fascinating, and of course cellists find them fascinating on many levels, including the physical, technical challenge of them.

You mentioned Casals — with the legacy of people like him and [Mstislav] Rostropovich, do you listen to those recordings?

I listened to Casals, though I haven’t for a long time. I’m not a big fan of Rostropovich playing Bach — for me, it’s dated. I admire his huge approach, but for me there’s not enough articulation, there’s not enough historical context, and there are other cellists who I much prefer playing Bach. But of course, you know, the historic and famous occasion on which Rostropovich played sitting in front of the Berlin Wall when it was coming down, and he played Bach because it feels universal and it feels human on a grand scale.

Is that legacy daunting or inspiring?

It doesn’t really affect me, I think. I take the pieces as they come, look at the score, I do that with everything. I look at the score and have my own [interpretation], that’s all I can do. Casals isn’t there playing next to me, I’m there. I’m in the hall by myself, playing this Bach for people who want to hear it live. Casals unfortunately is not around anymore to do it, so I’ve got to do it! And I’m really very grateful that that’s the case, that I have the chance to share this music with the hall here, in the Sheldonian. It really is a privilege.

How historically informed would you say your approach is?

I think I’m on a journey with it, and I think it’s definitely a fluid approach that I have. It does depend a little bit on the hall, the size of the hall, the acoustics of the hall. Last night I was playing in an incredibly dry hall and found myself using more vibrato than I’d like to, but I understood [that] I had to because the hall was so dry, and it was simply a way to find an acoustic. I play on steel strings, partly because I was touring the Dvorak concerto last week and I can’t change so fast, but I am very interested not least in the articulation and the phrasing possibilities available with Baroque bows and with gut strings, so again it’s an open ended journey. If there’s a general direction I’m moving in, it’s generally towards [historical] performance practice rather than away from it.

Could you tell us a little about the Bach projects you’ve done with people like Jeanette Winterson and Carlos Acosta, and maybe how those projects came about and whether it changed anything about your role was as a musician?

I played the the Suite of Dances with Carlos Acosta dancing, and that was really interesting. The interpretation there was to do with Jerome Robbins, who was the choreographer, a very famous choreographer, and it was his interpretation of Bach. So some things were perhaps a little bit slower and slightly different from how I would imagine them myself because he was putting dance steps to them, but I could find my way through with that. And it was a piece of chamber music, it was very interesting, I had a lot of fun doing it. It was a conversation between the dancer and the ‘cellist, and I really enjoyed that. With Jeanette Winterson, it was an experiment with words and music: to be repeated, I hope!

One of the other things that’s coming up this year is your Purbeck Chamber Festival. What is the history of that, and how did it come about?

Well, it’s really fun to have my own little festival, and it’s really in its infancy, but I hope it’s going to grow. It’s a kind of canvas where I can experiment with programmes, and hopefully the audience will trust me and come along with me. This year, actually, there’s a lot of Bach, and some jazz, and inspiration, so that kind of covers everything possible! We have Bach, of course, lots of Bach, including the Goldberg Variations played by Mahan Esfahani on the harpsichord. And then we have jazz inspiration: Ravel Duo and Anthony Marwood, and Schulhoff Five Pieces for String Quartet. There’s also jazz improvisation, including a couple of amazing colleagues who will be doing overtone singing and improvising on Bach. I think it’s going to be quite wild, some of it, and I think it’s going to be interesting. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and who knows, maybe one day we’ll bring a programme or two to Oxford some time!

You mention someone like Anthony Marwood, I guess there are certain people you often come back to working with. What qualities in another player or person make those relationships work?

I think with Anthony, what I really admire about him apart from his instrumental skill, which I find very inspiring, of course, is his seriousness and his approach to a score. That’s what I always get inspired by, someone I can really learn from as a musician.

Linked to that, then, you’re doing some masterclasses and teaching as part of this project. What do you get out of that, and how do you try to be the best teacher that you can?

I’m passionate about teaching, and have been for many years. I remember when I was 18 years old and I went to listen to masterclasses as well as playing in them. I was really interested not only in learning how to play myself, I was already listening for how to teach, and what would that master say and why. I found it really fascinating then and I still do. I think that, selfishly speaking, teaching helps me become a better musician because I have to articulate what I really mean, and I have to articulate how I feel something could be closer to the score and closer to a performance, and I really enjoy the interaction with students who are alive and open to learning. It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was a student, but unfortunately, with each year that goes by, it’s further away. But I feel I can still relate to students and what they’re going through, and yet I have so much experience behind me that I feel I’ve genuinely got something to give, and I enjoy giving that. It’s a kind of selfish giving, if that makes sense, because the more you give, the more you get back, somehow, from teaching.

You’ve had some eminent teachers, people like Heinrich Schiff. What made him such a special teacher?

He is passionate about teaching too, and I think he probably felt very similarly to me. He’s devoted a lot of time and energy into teaching his students. In fact, he’d often teach us instead of practising himself. He took us to lots of concerts that he was conducting, it was kind of like an old-fashioned apprenticeship, which is very rare and very precious. He is one of the great musicians of the world, I think, and it was an unforgettable time.

If you could go back to when you were 18, what advice would you give yourself?

I think I felt kind of in a rush, I felt like I had to do everything, and I think if I could go back, I would say ‘don’t worry, there’s time’. I felt very pressurised and stressed was I was 18 or 20, and I think what people didn’t tell me is that it is stressful, because I think as a performer when I was 18 or 20, I was viewed as the next “hot young thing” and that was stressful because that actually didn’t sit well with me. I think I was more serious, a long-distance runner, I’m not a quick sprinter. I think what would have been nice is for someone to say ‘look, it’s ok, you’ll go through this, but when you’re 25 or 30, you’ll realise that life stretches out in front of you in a way that is serious’. That would have been a relief, because lots of people were giving me bad advice, saying ‘you have to take it all now or it won’t come back’. I didn’t take it all now, and I’m glad I didn’t.

Do you think that some of that pressure was from winning [BBC] Young Musician?

I’m absolutely sure that a lot of it was. But not all of it, I think the pressure is there regardless if you’re an 18-year-old. It’s there if you’re talented and picked up, it’s there in one way or another. I think it’s there for everyone, for everyone at university as well. If I say ‘what are you going to do when you leave?’, I’m sure you feel there’s this great pressure to know what you’re doing next. I think one has to be serious about decisions, and make decisions based on integrity. But there’s a lot of time still between 22 and 30. You shouldn’t waste it, but there’s a lot of time, everything doesn’t have to be finalised at 18! But then, you have to work really hard.

Giles Masters

For more information about Natalie and her forthcoming concerts, please visit her website.

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