Natalie Clein | Musica Viva AustraliaI fell in love with Natalie Clein. Warm, unegotistical yet engaging, she spoke to the audience in the same vein as a simple remark attributed to her in the program, “The music is more important than me.” And her playing is just the same, unegotistical but always engaging.

She opened the program with Vaughan Williams’ Six studies in English Folksong, where she identified with the relaxed yet loving approach to England these pieces display. Lyrical without sentimentality, they allowed space for the relaxed side of her very special tone, which has so much “colour”, that is to say, strong harmonics, in its sound. Then she played Bloch’s three pieces, From Jewish Life, where the plangent possibilities in this tone emerged, like a flower opening, and she sounded at times like Rostropovich. These pieces can sound emotionally self-indulgent, but Clein’s rendering, though lacking nothing in emotional appeal, engaged the audience’s hearts without drowning them in tears. She got the jokes which go cheek by jowl with sorrow in these pieces, and this occasional playfulness rescued the music from anything maudlin.

Up until now Katya Apekisheva’s contribution had been very much an accompaniment; beautiful, tactful, supportive, but definitely secondary. That changed completely with the next piece, which was the big eye-opener for me in the program. Rebecca Clarke’s viola sonata is a masterpiece. Written in 1919, when she was 23, and anonymously submitted to a competition whose judges refused to believe that it was written by a woman (don’t get me started; we still refuse to believe, for example, that Anna Magdalena Bach wrote the cello suites attributed to her husband) this work is apparently well known only to viola players. Clarke suggested that it could be played on the cello, and hearing Apekisheva and Clein paint the sonorous landscape of this vast canvas it was hard for me to imagine that a viola could have done it justice. (But of course that is only because I haven’t heard it on viola.) Virtuosic for both players, in a musical language thoroughly of its time, based on that of Bloch but with splashes of Ravel and Debussy, its cascades of chromatic scales over dominant ninth chords raced by in great waterfalls of sound, only to subside into moments of great tenderness.

The program contained the premiere performance of Natalie William’s The Dreaming Land. Williams, a well-established Australian composer, was commissioned to write this piece by Musica Viva, who put together the tour by Clein and Apekisheva of which this concert was part. Described by the composer as a musical journey over the landscape of Australia, it was only in the rhythmic finale that I had any sense of travelling – the first two movements seemed transfixed in awed reverie at the imponderable vastness of this country. They reflected more the title of the work than any sense of travelling. The piece is charming, unchallenging, and played with great commitment by the performers. It is remarkable, however, that Australian composers still feel the necessity to describe this country, as though it is still, really, a foreign place to the foreign settlers, the group to which most of our composers belong.

Oh, what fun Clein had with the Beethoven sonata! The last work on the program was the C major sonata, op 102 no.1. This piece, the polar opposite of its opposite number, the D major op. 102 no.2 but having a great deal in common with the A major piano sonata, op 101 in style and form, is a little jewel among the five Beethoven cello sonatas. More like a conversation between the two instruments than any of the preceding pieces in the program, it moves mercurially between reflection, humour, and anger, no sooner establishing one mood than breaking into its opposite. The interplay between Clein and Apekisheva, who must have a wicked sense of humour, was a delight from start to finish.

I would walk miles with peas in boots to hear Natalie Clein again.

2019 Adelaide Festival
Natalie Clein and Katya Apekisheva
Musica Viva Australia

Venue: Adelaide Town Hall - Auditorium | 128 King William Street, Adelaide SA
Dates: 7 March 2019
Tickets: $98 – $40


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