Natalie Clein quietly contemplates her cultural heritage

The leading cellist says her Jewish background is a source of creative inspiration

For a leading cellist who has been on the international circuit since the age of 16, when she won the BBC Young Musician competition in 1994, Natalie Clein’s trips into the recording studio have been few and far between. And though that may be partly due to record industry decline (nobody these days makes as many CDs as they did), it’s also the result of choice.

“I’ve never seen the point,” she told me from her home in Muswell Hill, “in doing a recording for the sake of it. I ask myself why make this disc? Does it make sense to me? And why would someone want to buy it? So far, every time, I’ve had an answer to those questions.”

But the consequence has been just four solo releases in the past nine years – which makes her fifth, out this month on Hyperion, an event and something she’s been planning very carefully, with much thought.

Essentially, it’s a disc of cello music with declared Jewish connections. The composers are the 20th century Swiss-American Ernest Bloch (whose Scenes from Jewish Life, Rhapsodie Hebraique and Schelomo all feature) and the earlier, German Romantic Max Bruch (whose Kol Nidrei, inspired by a text from the service for Yom Kippur, is there too).

It’s a curious thing about Bruch that, because of Kol Nidrei, he was widely thought to have been Jewish – not least by the Third Reich who put him on the verboten list as a result. But he was born and raised a Christian, with no evidence of Jewish blood in him at all. He simply took a cultural interest in Judaic liturgy and music. And it’s the cultural rather than religious aspects of this repertory that have attracted Clein.

“I was born,” she says, “into a Jewish family that was completely non-religious but my background still means something to me. And being European Jewish – as Ernest Bloch was – involves a sense of division that can be a great source of creative energy. One of the things I’ve tried to do in this recording is discover what that meant for Bloch: not in terms of anti-semitism or the Holocaust, but simply trying to establish what was his specific voice as a composer.”

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Is this another way of saying that it’s helpful to be Jewish if you’re playing Jewish repertory?

“If I said yes to that, I’d have a problem with everything else I do. My last disc was Kodaly and I’m not Hungarian. So no, I don’t think there are boundaries. Musicians have to be like actors – you get into role and find between the music and yourself something that resonates.

“But the reason I did the Kodaly disc is because I’m interested in the issues of nationalism and identity that were circulating at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and this Bloch/Bruch disc is also about exploring identity.”

An interesting aspect of that exploration, though, is its restraint and understatement. Clein’s response to the Judaic atmosphere is never laboured. It comes with the measured eloquence for which her readings of the sometimes over-sentimentalised Elgar concerto have been praised – and that’s a conscious choice.

“I’ve always preferred people who act with their eyes rather than shouting because I don’t think big statements necessarily mean more feeling. It’s important as a musician to avoid stereotypes, which is why, when people ask me how you manage to play the Elgar and avoid the shadow of du Pr�, I say it’s easy – you go back to the score, you start from scratch, you approach it afresh.”

Clein has never been averse to fresh ideas and one of them comes into being this month when she takes up temporary residence in the so-called Room for London, which is currently perched like a stranded tugboat on the roof-scape of the Southbank Centre.

She is one of a parade of well-known writers, artists and musicians who have been asked to spend a night or two locked in the room (which has the compensation of superb views) contemplating some kind of creative or interpretative statement – which, in the case of the musicians, is then broadcast live across the Southbank and the internet.


“It’s meant to be like sounds emerging from a semi-private world on which the audience eavesdrops. So what I’ll do is put together a rough plan for a 50-minute performance of solo cello pieces with some kind of narrative connection, work on it while I’m there, and then play it to whoever cares to listen – at 6pm on August 24.”

Will she enjoy the isolation of this odd experience?

“Well, I won’t be totally alone because there will be someone to look after me – I have to eat – and I’m allowed to invite a few friends in. So I’m actually looking forward to it. If nothing else, it’s a chance to stop and think because for much of the rest of this year I’ll be on a concert tour of South America, which will be great as well, but hectic. Two days on a roof, watching the Thames go by, might not be such a bad idea.”

Natalie Clein’s new CD of cello works by Bloch and Bruch is released next week on Hyperion