In this extract from the September 2021 Masterclass, cellist Natalie Clein guides players through the opening of Haydn’s virtuosic work
The following extract is from The Strad’s September 2021 issue Masterclass: Natalie Clein on the first movement of Haydn’s Cello Concerto no.2. To read it in full, click here to subscribe and login. The September 2021 digital magazine and print edition are on sale now
For me Haydn expresses musical joy, human warmth and humour more than any other composer. This concerto speaks, sings and dances, and it is so beautiful in its lyricism. He wrote it for the cellist Anton Kraft, who enjoyed wowing people with his virtuosic skills high up the fingerboard, and it’s one of the first important pieces in our repertoire to use thumb position. When I first performed it, as a teenager, I had this sense that I was flying above the orchestra, and I wanted to make the audience members feel that they were flying too. Nowadays I often teach it for many hours a week, but I never get bored: Haydn’s endless inventiveness means there is always something new to discover and smile about. I also enjoy experimenting with a Classical bow and gut strings, and find it enlightening to translate my discoveries to my modern set-up.
First impressions: flexibility, resonance and freedom
The opening tutti quavers need to ebb and flow, like conversation, human breathing, life and nature. They are flexible and unstoppable, like water. I use a Classical bow to help me play naturally unequally, with less emphasis on the up bows, in long, flowing breaths, without obvious bar-lines. It’s so important never to sound mechanical, repetitive or stuck. I love to direct this from the cello when I can, sitting to the side so that I don’t have my back to the orchestra, because without a conductor everybody really has to listen.
It is obvious from the beginning of bar 29 whether a soloist is excellent or not. This line has to sound light and breezy, without physical tension despite the difficult jumps. The beauty, expression and resonance of the sound have to come from the right side of the body much more than the left. We could use a tiny bit of vibrato on the first F sharp and final A of bar 29, but only to amplify the natural resonance of the instrument – not because it just feels comfortable! Haydn never writes staccatissimo marks on unimportant notes, so these indicate that we can play with more flesh and weight.
Haydn gives us space to take our time between the big beats of bar 30, as though they are the walls and floors of a Classical building, with ornate details that confound our expectations in between. The sextuplet here is like an expression of sparkling laughter.
Long, legato lines were becoming increasingly popular among musicians in Haydn’s time and this concerto is filled with contrast between articulated, fast-speaking notes and singing, soprano lyricism. We have to keep that legato feeling even for the jump up to E in bar 33, breathing in and out to prevent our muscles from getting tense. I think of my upper arms as my wings and my right arm as my breath, as though I’m a wind player.
When this piece was written there wasn’t the same division between composition and performance that there is today. Nowadays players feel so bound to the score and it’s such a pity for them, for us as listeners, and for the music. It’s not what Haydn imagined, I’m sure.
One place to be creative is in the appoggiaturas of bar 34. We could play one longer, one shorter, one with rubato, with a speaking quality to the sound. Keep the hair on the string, but let the stick bounce, to create a wonderful contrast with the legatissimo lines that came beforehand.
After this, we can imagine a virtuoso soprano as we play the demisemiquaver run from bars 35–36 with improvisational flair. Letting the left ‘wing’ fly here will take away some of the fear of the high F sharp. There’s a physicality to it, like giving someone a hug: we have to embrace the difficulty of the note, be totally calm in the body and know what’s coming. In bars 36–37 we can put slurs in all kinds of places depending on how we’re feeling, to bring out the asymmetrical moments within the symmetry of the Classical form. If we do this, while ignoring the bar-lines, our playing will never be boring or mechanical.
All too often the D string can’t be heard in the double-stop passage from bar 38, so we need to be careful to bring this out. I play the grace note in bar 39 as a harmonic, taking care to treat it with my bow with just as much respect as I would a stopped note. Then I aim sharp for the fourth-finger G sharp in bar 39, because almost everyone plays this flat! After this tightrope act, there’s a sense of physical relief in the first-position sextuplets that follow. I love the rising 7th to begin bar 41, so I bring this out by playing the D for a little longer and using shorter bows for the descent. We can add ornaments in asymmetrical places here too, in bars 42 and 43. However we decide to play, we should be open to the idea of doing things a new way tomorrow.
In bar 45 Haydn makes a harmonic joke with his appoggiatura octaves, staying in D major instead of taking us into A major. To bring this out we can use all kinds of effects with timing and the bow, or even play an improvised turn or scale.