[blockquote author=”Umberto Clerici: Cellist, Conductor and CSO 2020 Artist in Focus”]
I think a playlist made by a musician should change constantly, according to the interests, what we are studying and the research we are doing. This playlist is the result of five months without live concerts but a lot of time spent studying different repertoire.
With a career spanning more than 20 years as a gifted cello soloist, orchestral musician, and now emerging conductor, Umberto Clerici is swiftly gaining a reputation as an artist with a diverse and multifaceted career.
As a cello soloist, Umberto made his debut at the age of 17 performing Haydn’s D Major cello concerto in Japan, and has since appeared with an array of renowned orchestras internationally including the Vienna Philharmonic, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Russian State Orchestra of Moscow, “I Pomeriggi Musicali” (Milan) and Zagreb Philharmonic. In 2003 he made his debut at the Salzburg Festival and in 2012 he performed Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo variations” conducted by Valery Gergiev. Umberto has performed on the stages of the world’s most prestigious concert halls including New York’s Carnegie Hall, Vienna’s Musicverein, the great Shostakovich Hall of St Petersburg and Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome.
In 2014 Umberto was appointed as the Principal Cello of the Sydney Symphony following his appointment as Principal Cellist of the Royal Opera House in Turin for four years. Umberto enjoys solo appearances with the Sydney Symphony; in 2017 with an interdisciplinary project centred on Strauss’ Don Quixote and in 2018 Brahms’ Double Concerto. Umberto also enjoys his position as the Artistic Director of the Sydney Youth Orchestra Chamber Ensemble.
Umberto plays a 1722 Matteo Goffriller and a 1758 Carlo Antonio Testore.
PART ONE: INTERPRETING BACH
I started with a compilation of Bach’s first cello solo suite, followed with a selection from my “Suite Cubed” that I recorded for ABC Classics three years ago. The concept originated from a few questions: does recording the ‘famous’ repertoire still make sense? Don’t we have enough recordings on the market? How much of our ego is involved in this process and how much is our actual contribution?
I consider live concerts as completely different because they exist in a specific time, in a specific place and with a specific artist and audience, but recordings are like immortal documents. When ABC asked me to record Bach I said no because I didn’t feel the need to add another version based purely on performing features / differences, in the ocean of the hundreds of Bach recordings already in existence. But I was interested in developing the idea of Bach in a different context, his inspiration about the cello (the Ricercate by Degli Antonii is 50 years older than Bach’s suites) and his heritage among future composers. And also what makes the ‘box’ of the suite so dramaturgically successful.
So, my mixtape starts with a compilation of four great cellists (one is a Gamba player actually), from different parts of the world and different ages, starting from Pablo Casals who ‘rediscovered’ this music – finding a copy of a very old, printed edition in a second-hand shop by the Rambla in Barcelona – to Palo Pandolfo and his reinterpretation of them on the viola da Gamba, passing by the ‘historically informed’ reading of the Dutch Anner Bylsma and the super romanticised personality of the legendary Rostropovich.
Pablo Casals discovered the Bach cello solo suite when he was 13. He made a complete recording of the six suites in London 50 years later, when he was in his sixties.
Anner Byslma was one of the first cellists – probably the best of his generation – who tried to recreate the original sound and style of a historically informed Bach. Gut strings and less vibrato!
Listen to the sound, the vibrato, of Slava, like a cathedral!
At the time of the composition, the viola da gamba was the established instrument and the cello was his younger ‘nephew.’ Paolo Pandolfo tries to reimagine the suites as if they had been composed on the gamba: a less loud and less deep instrument, yet more resonant thanks to the six strings and frets.
The peak of Bach’s cello ‘exploration,’ the magnificent sixth suite prelude. Composed having in mind a smaller, five string cello, here ‘adapted’ for a normal-sized cello with four strings.
Older than Bach, one of pioneers of the ‘new born cello’ from Bologna in the mid 1600s.
Another great Italian cellist named Alfredo Piatti composed 12 capricci, 200 years after Degli Antonii, following the path of what Paganini did for the violin.
The dark and sensual Sarabande, a forbidden dance, from the second solo suite in D minor.
Another great Italian cellist, 200 years after Piatti and 400 after Degli Antonii, covering a huge timespan for the cello. Sollima is a great virtuoso and his piece here, Alone, recreates an ancient and archaic song … with a rock and roll flavour!
The flamenco ends the Suite Cubed as a rustic gigue ended the Bach ones. This work was composed by the Catalan cellist Gaspar Cassadó and dedicated to his teacher, the cellist we began this playlist with – the legendary Pablo Casals.
PART TWO: WHAT IS ‘ORIGINAL’ PERFORMANCE?
What I want to challenge is the idea of style and what ‘original’ performance means. When we look at old music, like the one of the Baroque period for example, the only way we could imagine how that music was played in its own time is through written sources. We don’t have recordings from that time and too many generations stand between now and then to be able to rely on historical continuance. During the pandemic, I read a lot of the historical classical treatises and realised that, even if they are very precise, they say completely contradictory things. This is because taste is something that, like today, changes quickly but also because individual musicianship always has, in a way, been stronger than performance ‘rules.’
To prove this, I included two different recordings of the first movement of Mahler 4, by two composers who knew Mahler personally and who spent much of their lives studying and performing Mahler symphonies. Both recordings are with the same orchestra, the Concertgebouw orchestra in Amsterdam, and they are just seven years apart, one from 1939 and the other 1946. Mengelberg knew Mahler well and he had been Chief Conductor of the Concertgebouw for 50 years! Bruno Walter, on the other hand, met Mahler when he was 18 and later became his assistant in Vienna, working with him for more than 10 years. Despite this common, direct link with Mahler himself – making both very ‘original’ and connected to the source – the two performances are incredibly different in terms of tempo, phrasing, rubato and sound. Which one is the closest to Mahler? Nobody can know…
The Dutch conductor Mengelberg interprets Mahler’s fourth symphony. Listen to the rubato, the glissatos and the nuances!
Here Mahler’s assistant, Bruno Walter, shows how different the same music can sound! This interpretation seems to follow the classical tradition of Mozart and Beethoven, with the flare of Romanticism.
PART THREE: MEMORIES AND FAVOURITES
I’ve included a recording of the first Rachmaninov piano trio, the first professional CD I made 20 years go with my former piano trio, the Trio di Torino. It was a time where there were still the resources to make recordings properly: in a great hall, having the time to find the right balance between musicality and precision.
I could not avoid including something by the best conductor of all time, Carlos Kleiber: one movement from Beethoven’s seventh symphony and the Feldermaus Overture.
The last two pieces of the playlist are both for Tchaikovsky but there is something specific about them: Mravinsky dedicated his life to this Russian repertoire and had been the chief conductor of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic for 50 years! So, despite sounding a bit drier, more ‘classical’ and less ‘romantic’ than what we have in mind about Tchaikovsky, I think this is much closer to the composer’s language than the ‘stereotype’ of his music.
The last piece is the first movement of the Tchaikovsky string serenade, conducted by the Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa. In the last 20 years, this repertoire became very often played and toured by chamber orchestras of 15 / 20 players, without a conductor. In my opinion, this agile set up has more cons than pros. If you listen the sound of 55 string players together you’ll agree with me that it is a completely different experience.
I recorded this Rachmaninov CD when I was 20. At the time, my 15-year relationship with the Trio Di Torino had just started! I’m still happy about it…
The best conductor of all time, at least for me and the majority of conductors, here conducts the overture of Fledermaus, a famous operetta by Johan Strauss. The Viennese essence condensed in few minutes!
The energy, the constant, imperceptible push forward, the amazing balancing of a tricky and loud movement – the finale to Beethoven’s seventh symphony. Unreachable!
If you always thought that Tchaikovsky’s music (like Rachmaninov) is mostly about melodies and extra-cheesy rubatos, maybe this recording will make you change your mind. In this recording, the narrative, the balance, the form, makes it sound like he is Mozart’s grandchild!
Last piece in the mixtape, another peak by Tchaikovsky. Listen to 60 strings playing together, pure silk and power!
My name is Umberto Clerici, I play the cello and I conduct, I’m originally from the North of Italy, Torino, but I’ve been living in Sydney almost seven years as the Principal Cello of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I played for the first time with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra in 2017 thanks to the invitation of a dear friend and a musician that I strongly respect, Nicholas Milton. Since then, I’ve been back to the CSO almost every year.
I was introduced to music by chance when I was five years old. My parents are both non-musicians and they wanted my brother (now a violinist) and I to have a musical education: music provides discipline, a sense of sacrifice, a sense of belonging to a group – in a way it is an example of a democratic ‘micro-society’ at his best, where everybody contributes actively and simultaneously toward the same goal. So I went to the excellent Suzuki school of the city and I had to pick one instrument, either the violin or the cello. Being quite an impetuous character, I though the cello could be less fragile and more able to deal with me. Here I am after 34 years!
I think learning is a state of mind and not something reserved for a period of our life when we are younger. I still enjoy being able to discover new elements in music, even from completely different points of view.
With this in mind, the person in the last 10 years who probably made the biggest impression in my way of thinking about music is the Hungarian pianist / ‘guru’ Ferenc Rados, whose musical philosophy is so abstract and complex that I remember not being able to understand almost anything he was saying for quite a while. There are teachers who can make you play or understand better immediately, within the same lesson: you come in with a piece of music and you get out after an hour playing that piece better. Usually this technique is very practical, based on some technical suggestions and some positive reinforcement and works best with younger and inexperienced musicians. Rados is the opposite – you are lucky if you don’t play MUCH worse after an hour with him! But six months later, something clicks and your mind switches to a different level of understanding.
To me the most difficult part about being a musician is remaining honest with the purpose of art. It is good to be busy, ‘well paid’ and recognised but art exists to elevate us, to make us better, freer and more relevant as human beings. It should encourage social debate on ethics and aesthetics and not just be one of the possible varieties of entertainment.
It’s probably the Music Verein in Vienna – the acoustic is great and it looks amazing for the kind of music we play (when you imagine either a Beethoven symphony or a Johann Strauss waltz you can’t avoid visualising that golden, highly decorated hall).
It’s also my favourite for what it represents. I remember playing the Saint-Saëns cello concerto there; a member of the orchestra told me that a few years before, after a renovation, they had noticed that the acoustic was not as good as before. When they tried to understand what the main reason could be, they thought of how the ground floor, originally empty, was now hosting a library and the musical archive, with a new café open to the public – filling that space might have absorbed some of the resonance in the wooden hall. So, the city council decided to empty it again and, suddenly, the sound came back to the original shine! They decided to keep it empty and relocate everything somewhere else. Despite the premium real estate in the centre of crowded Vienna and the costs of the previous renovation, they decided to privilege the acoustics and the music.
Being able to do what I love and what I studied for. In a world obsessed with personal income and collecting things (from real estate to objects), I see so many miserable people doing a job, for 40 years, that they don’t like and within which they don’t recognise themselves, gaining neither joy nor satisfaction. Money can act like a drug but doesn’t provide the joy of fulfilment.
Four years ago, my wife Sophie gave me, for my birthday, a beautiful baton engraved with a quote from the Don Quixote’s writer, Miguel de Cervantes, that says: ‘Where there’s music, there can be no evil.’ At that time, I didn’t have any plans to conduct and my previous cello agent was quite angry about it, thinking that it could be something to detract from my cello career. Four years later I’m spending much more time studying scores than playing the cello. And I changed agents…
This year, with the impossibility of live performing, I finally had so much more time to do the readings and studies that I postponed for many years. I also had the chance to properly deepen and revise my conducting technique: even though I had been conducting quite a lot for the last couple of years, I never really had the time to go deep in subtle movements and how these are related not only with a musical instinct but also with what each musician in an orchestra needs.
I have always thought that the conductor, as musical guidance and inspiration among very skilled and professional musicians, was a ‘job’ for the second half of a musical life. The 20 years I have spent playing the cello – between solo, chamber music and in the orchestra, playing all over the world – helps me to better understand the repertoire and the psychology of the players and create for them the ‘infrastructure’ that enables the music making.
I hope, in 10 years time, that I’ll have fully explored this new chapter.