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For many winners of the bi-annual Young Musician Of The Year competition the most important part of the prize – more important than the trophy and travel award – is the stepping-stone it provides to a career in the cut-throat world of classical music.
Freddy Kempf, David Pyatt and Emma Johnson, to name just a handful, have gone on to achieve massive acclaim as soloists and recording artists. But when Natalie Clein won the competition in 1994 – not to mention becoming the first British winner of the Eurovision Competition For Young Musicians – she chose to delay her entry into the worldwide career that beckoned and go back to school.
“I just went into the competitions for the experience of playing concerts, and the chance to play a concerto with a good orchestra,” she remembers. “When I won Young Musician it was a bit of a shock. Instead of thinking I wanted to have a big career straight away, I realised how much I still had to learn. So I went away and studied quietly, and did some concerts, but I was much more interested in becoming a better musician than in having a big career. That’s always been my inner goal, rather than outward shows of success.”
So, following studies at London’s Royal College of Music, she spent five years in Vienna under the tutelage of the Austrian cellist and conductor Heinrich Schiff, where her fellow students included Christian Polterà and Thomas Carroll.
“That experience was amazing. It was a unique experience that has really formed who I am as a musician and as a cellist. Schiff is an incredible teacher and influence in every way, and it was like an apprenticeship – it was really much more than just cello lessons. It’s very humbling to be learning with such a great musician. He was able to express things in a way that was magical and spiritual, which is the art of a great teacher.”
Natalie has been no stranger to the concert platform during her studies: she made her Proms debut in 1997, and spent two years on the New Generation Artists scheme. And now she has embarked on her first full season as a soloist, with a gala concert at St John’s, Smith Square (recorded for broadcast), and her first recital disc for EMI, coupling the two Brahms cello sonatas with Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata.
She sees the Brahms sonatas as “real outdoor music, whereas the Schubert is very internal, intimate music – a beautiful, melancholy piece, almost as if Schubert is sleepwalking as he composes it.”
What is most striking about Natalie Clein, as she takes the first steps in what is sure to be a hugely successful future career, is her humility in the face of it. “There’s still so much great music for me to learn – my repertoire could be much, much bigger.”
So the studying doesn’t stop for her: “The wish to improve is a driving force. I’m very self-critical, and I can’t see that ever changing! I think the day you stop learning is the day that you should give up and stop playing.”