Nerves and strings of steel

As her star rises, the young cellist Natalie Clein is displaying admirable maturity

When Natalie Clein won the BBC Young Musician of the Year title in 1994 with Elgar's Cello Concerto, she was hailed as the natural successor to Jacqueline Du Pré, and her triumph produced a flurry of hype.

When Natalie Clein won the BBC Young Musician of the Year title in 1994 with Elgar's Cello Concerto, she was hailed as the natural successor to Jacqueline Du Pré, and her triumph produced a flurry of hype.

The media attention and the lucrative career possibilities beckoning so temptingly were handled with surprising maturity for a 17-year-old. She was determined to proceed with caution. "I'm a big believer in slow-cooking!" she jokes. After yet another competition success, Clein went to the Royal College of Music, then to Vienna, where Heinrich Schiff became "more than a teacher - a mentor, a hero".

Now her career is up and running, and tomorrow night she appears in the Barbican's Mostly Mozart Festival playing a concerto by Mozart's older contemporary, and cellist himself, Luigi Boccherini, whose gentle, lyrical music earned him the tag "Haydn's wife". "It's a lovely work, not about pouring out your heart, or talking about everything between life and death, but a lot of fun. It's about the beauty of cello-playing and it's pure joy - as refreshing as a sip of champagne." It also requires nerves of steel.

She'll be sticking firmly to strings of steel too, not the gut that Boccherini would have known. Her Italian cello, however, is only a little younger than the concerto and exactly 200 years older than she is. "After two years it's still like getting to know another person, uncovering new layers, finding wonderful and difficult surprises. It's smaller than a lot of cellos so it suits my hand and yet the sound is perfectly focused." The cello being bought for her through a syndicated trust that provides musicians with the quality instruments they need long before they're rich and famous. "It's got a magical sound and is already a real companion. I feel very lucky every time I walk on stage, thinking 'We're in it together.'"

She's just made her first album, featuring Brahms's two sonatas for cello and piano, which make an ideal coupling since they're widely contrasted in tone and character. And to that she's added Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata, composed for the now obsolete arpeggione instrument and which should suit her range of colour and individual way of making phrases speak. "Apart from anything else, it's good value for money," she comments modestly, but it's quite a challenge for a debut recording.

Another project involves the writer Jeanette Winterson. The intention is to combine Winterson's words with a trio arrangement of Bach's Goldberg Variations. "I'm a huge admirer of her writing and of her attitude towards the arts, and I'm thrill-ed that she too is interested in experimenting with combining music and words."

Next on her repertoire list is Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto and she hopes to be invited to play the Walton concerto. "We're really beggars not choosers, since cellists don't have an endless supply of good pieces. But there's still lots to learn, works that will stretch me technically and develop me musically and make a change from the Elgar, Dvorak or Haydn that I'm usually asked to play."

Natalie Clein plays at the Barbican, London EC1 (0845 120 7550) tomorrow at 7.30pm

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