Session Report: Natalie Clein records Saint-Saëns's cello concertos

Kate Molleson Wed 24th September 2014

Great music-making and a little artistic friction are on display as the heavily pregnant cellist takes to the studio, by Kate Molleson

It can’t be easy to play the cello at eight months pregnant. The sheer mechanics must be awkward, what with the bump sitting just where the instrument normally would. Then there’s the mental focus needed to get through a couple of concertos and several long recording sessions – not exactly conducive to late-stage pregnancy brain.

Of course, Natalie Clein had no idea she would be within a month of full term when she signed up to record Saint-Saëns’s two cello concertos with Andrew Manze and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The sessions had been booked two years in advance, and when she discovered she was pregnant she was determined not to cancel. ‘I didn’t want to sit at home getting bored,’ she shrugs, ‘so I stayed active all the way.’

By the first day of recording, Clein’s bump is just starting to nudge the back of her cello, but it’s her energy levels that are proving more problematic. On the floor around her there’s a small mountain of snacks – dried fruit, chocolate, cups of tea – to get her through the afternoon. She’s tackling Saint-Saëns’s rarely-performed Second Concerto first, in many ways more demanding than its popular predecessor. The two-movement score is fiendish for ensemble and full of skittish cello writing that’s often awkwardly placed. ‘Even a lot of cellists don’t know it,’ says Clein, ‘which is a shame. Maybe it’s not as perfect as the first, but there are pages that are stunningly beautiful and really innovative.’

Halfway through the afternoon the session reaches a temporary impasse. A solo passage in quick-shifting sixths is giving Clein bad cramps in her bowing arm. The more she goes over it the tenser her muscles become; the natural solution would be to stop for a cuppa and return to the passage later, but time is tight and producer Simon Kiln needs at least one take that’s in tune and fluent before he can move on. Fraught conversations go back and forth between Kiln, Clein and Manze, with occasional interjections from BBC SSO leader Laura Samuel. Manze offers the hopeful advice of a fellow string player; ‘try lightening your attack,’ he suggests, ‘or anchoring each bar with extra emphasis on the downbeat.’ The orchestra waits it out with glazed expressions.

‘I’m the kind of player who wants to say something every time I play, in every single take’

At last Clein finds a way through and the momentum gets going again. In the break afterwards she looks exhausted. ‘It’s always gruelling to record with an orchestra, whether you’re pregnant or not,’ she says, flopping into a swivel chair in the control room. ‘You have to be 100% focused. Normally it’s a kind of intensity that I really enjoy – I’m the kind of player who wants to say something every time I play, in every single take. If I hear a playback of a phrase that’s a bit out of tune but that has musical direction, I’ll choose it over one that is note-perfect but stale.’

Kiln suggests using the rest of the day to run the First Concerto, and suddenly Clein’s playing steps up a gear. She sounds back on home territory: this was the first work she ever played with an orchestra (Dorset Chamber Orchestra, aged 12), an event that she remembers as ‘the crucial moment when people realised I might have a particular talent for the cello’. Her opening phrase sounds fresh and fierce. Her second subject is spacious and tender. There’s a flow to her playing now which was missing in the strained patches earlier in the afternoon.

It’s been a tough session, but afterwards Clein still enthuses about the recording process. ‘There’s a freedom that isn’t there in live performance. Rough edges can be smoothed out later, so there’s more room to take risks. I probably drive producers crazy in that respect.’ If she is driving Kiln crazy, he doesn’t let it show. ‘Recording is like gathering a bouquet of flowers,’ he laughs. ‘It’s a case of gathering all the most beautiful takes.’

In the end he decides to cut a piece that had been planned as an extra for the disc (a transcription of Saint-Saëns’s Romance for Horn and Piano, Op 36) because there simply isn’t time to record it. He admits that he’s found the session unusual. ‘Natalie is a hugely spontaneous player with so many ideas – if she hears something she likes from within the orchestra she’ll really respond to it. It’s more organic than with many soloists. She can spread her wings very wide, so a lot of my job has been about keeping her focused. I’ve also had to be incredibly mindful of her energy levels. To be honest, I’ve never done a session quite like it.’

Recording session details

Repertoire: Saint-Saëns Cello Concertos Nos 1 & 2

Soloist: Natalie Clein (cello)

Conductor: Andrew Manze

Orchestra: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Venue: City Halls, Glasgow

Engineer: Arne Akselberg

Producer: Simon Kiln

Label: Hyperion

Date: 12 June, 2013

Time: 2.45pm

This recording is reviewed in the Awards issue (out now). You can also read the review in our Reviews Database.

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