Cellist Natalie Clein: what Haydn can teach us now

As her new album of Haydn's cello concertos is released, Natalie Clein writes about making a 'letter of love' to live music


I’m not sure how differently I would have felt (or played) had someone told me at the time that my recording of Haydn cello concertos would be released when the whole world was in a state of paralysis, longing again for a sense of community and the chance to experience miraculous moments of live music making together .

But as I sit in my home in Berlin tonight , I feel my recording to be a small but heartfelt letter of love to live music making. We tried to edit out some coughs and murmurs from the audience in the hall and a few imperfections here and there which I now feel to be more real or beautiful than before.

My former wish to pin down a “perfect” performance has been replaced with gratitude that we captured a moment in time that currently feels more precious than ever . And the letter from Haydn which I’ve often read out loud for an audience before performing one of his concertos , and which I’ve included in the CD booklet glows with a new relevance : “Often, when I was wrestling with all kinds of difficulties which impeded my art, when my mental and physical powers abated and it was hard for me to persist in the road my life had taken, a secret feeling whispered to me: ‘ There are so few happy, contented beings here below, they are everywhere dogged by grief and anxiety, perhaps your work may now and then become a spring from which the man who is careworn or overburdened with occupations can draw rest and refreshment for a few moments…’

Joseph Haydn’s music occupies a very special place in the hearts of cellists but is often overlooked by general audiences in favour of his flashier younger friends Mozart and Beethoven. I think this is a great pity but it is perhaps the way Haydn himself would have wished — he was a deeply modest man constantly underplaying his profound originality as a composer. He is also the funniest composer I can think of — constantly confounding expectations and playing musical tricks on both the players and the audience . He is the one to remind us that the world is ultimately benign , with beauty and joy waiting just around the corner .

The Haydn concertos are a staple part of every cellists’ diet — we begin to learn them as teenagers and they accompany students through every audition to enter conservatoires around the world and then on to every nail biting competition and audition for a professional orchestral position. I haven’t counted how many interpretations of the pieces already exist on disc but every great cellist has recorded them and I always ask myself what is my reason for adding another version to such a pantheon .

In this case , I hoped that the chance to record the pieces ‘live’ ( in front of 1000 living, breathing souls sitting closely together ) might give the remote listener a sense of that intense moment of ‘here and now’ .

I also played with real (sheep) gut strings instead of modern steel ones and with a lighter bow. My aim here was to recreate more of what Haydn may have had in his imagination when writing these glorious pieces . It’s certainly an inspiration to hear a new sound world on my 1777 Gudagnini; closer to what my cello was used to until the middle of the 20th century and with more chances to form musical ‘words’ with the bow ( more like pencil drawing than the modern fashion of painting a large canvas with a big brush).

Haydn’s Cello Concertos by Natalie Clein is out today from Oehms Classics 


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