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8.574202 - KODÁLY, Z.: Sonata for Solo Cello / Duo for Violin and Cello / LIGETI, G.: Sonata for Solo Cello (Weiss, Schwabe)
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Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967): Duo for Violin and Cello • Sonata for Solo Cello
György Ligeti (1923–2006): Sonata for Solo Cello


Zoltán Kodály was born on 16 December 1882 at Kecskemét (some 50 miles south-east of Budapest), where his father was a railway clerk. The next year his family moved to Szob, then in 1885 to Galánta, a large town close to Bratislava, the capital of modern Slovakia. This was followed by eight years in the largely Slovak town of Nagyszombat (since renamed Trnava), where his father had been transferred. In 1900 Zoltán entered Pázmány University in Budapest, studying German and Hungarian while at the same time taking composition lessons at the Academy of Music with Hans Koessler, a cousin of Max Reger and someone notably unsympathetic to traditional music. His doctoral thesis in 1906 was a study of Hungarian folk song, in the collection and investigation of which he was already occupied, along with his contemporary Béla Bartók.

After an intensive period of study in Berlin, Kodály returned to Hungary to join the Academy and where in 1908 he took over its first-year composition class. Over the following years he continued his activities both as a composer and as a collector of folk song. He latterly became deputy director of the Academy, which had been granted university status in the short-lived Hungarian Republic established in 1919, but he was temporarily barred from teaching after the collapse of the Republic four months later and the accession to power of Admiral Horthy.

Kodály’s music received increasing international attention with several publications as well as increasing performances abroad. Having resumed his duties as a teacher, Kodály continued to exercise a strong influence upon younger composers and an even greater effect over music education in Hungary. His main task was to establish a national Hungarian musical tradition, and for this to be absorbed into a recognisably Hungarian form of art music. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Kodály remained in Hungary whereas Bartók—another opponent of the Horthy regime—found refuge in the USA. Kodály had been accorded various honours at home and this continued after the advent of communist rule, coupled with international recognition of his work as composer and educator. He died in Budapest on 6 March 1967.

If Kodály’s later years were dominated by choral pieces, complementing his work in music education, his earlier reputation centred upon chamber music—notably two String Quartets, a Cello Sonata (8.553160) and the two works as featured on this abum. Completed in 1914 and premiered on 7 May 1918 by violinist Imre Waldbauer and cellist Jenö Kerpely, the Duo for Violin and Cello initially enjoyed only a lukewarm reception though was later selected to represent Hungary at the 1924 International Society for Contemporary Music Festival and even today stands, together with Ravel’s slightly later Sonata, as the principal contribution to the repertoire for these two instruments. Its three movements, almost equal in length, unite classical forms with the folk music in which Kodály was then immersed.

The opening movement begins with fiery rhetorical exchanges which quickly open out into more understated and ambivalent expression, with recourse to imitative exchanges between the instruments. The ideas heard thus far are drawn into a powerfully sustained development which culminates in a descending cadenzalike passage on cello, presaging the return of the first theme and a modified reprise in which these main ideas are heard in a more restrained and lyrical light. From here the music heads to a ruminative close shot through with regret. The slow movement opens with an eloquent cello line to which the violin responds in like manner. This leads into an arresting passage where tremolando writing for cello is pitted against an anguished response from violin, the music reaching an impassioned climax from where the speculative exchanges continue. Although the mood now becomes more settled, there is no doubting the sombre tone toward the end as both instruments ascend in calm yet restive uncertainty. The final movement picks up where its predecessor left off, but here the mood is audibly more forceful—this recitative-like passage making way for a sequence of energetic dance episodes where the composer’s indebtedness to traditional music is made manifest. These are contrasted with passages where these instruments pointedly exchange gestures as in the first movement, though any underlying impetus is never sacrificed; even when the violin belatedly unfolds an angular melody over stealthy cello pizzicatos, before both instruments gather the accumulated energy through to an unmistakably defiant close.

If the Duo remains less familiar than it might be, this has less to do with its scoring than for having been overshadowed by Kodály’s next work—the Sonata for Solo Cello. Composed in 1915 then premiered at the same 1918 concert (an all-Kodály affair that also featured his Seven Songs), this piece quickly came to be recognised as the most significant for solo cello since the Cello Suites of Bach written two centuries earlier. One aspect unique to the work is its deployment of scordatura—retuning the instrument’s strings to expand its range of harmonies and tone colours. This, along with the composer’s imaginative approach to Classical forms and his considerable technical demands, have ensured the Sonata a status that has seldom been equalled and never surpassed during the century since its composition.

The tensile opening Allegro maestoso ma appassionato commences with powerful declamatory writing that gradually opens-out in expression while also evincing greater harmonic ambiguity. This second main theme unfolds at some length, before an extensive development in which technical virtuosity is pushed to the limit. The reprise duly centres on the second theme, though elements of its predecessor never seem far away. Even when the music withdraws into itself for an inward coda, the closing brusque gesture makes for an unequivocal statement of intent. The central Adagio is the work’s emotional heart in every respect—the cello’s initial soliloquy heading forth with deliberation as the melodic line in the instrument’s upper register is shadowed by speculative pizzicatos in the depths. Such rumination is summarily curtailed by an eruptive middle section in which dance elements are once more to the fore, but these are leavened by the return of earlier material that enables the movement to retrace its steps on route to a coda that exudes raptness and anguish in equal measure. The final Allegro molto vivace caps the work in suitably imposing fashion: ostensibly another sequence of dance-like episodes, it is informed by a cumulative energy which sees its initial idea reappearing as though a structural refrain; around this, the intervening episodes generate a cumulative intensity sustained through to the climactic return of the main theme. This has itself been anticipated with a passage of starkly evocative writing that increases in virtuosity and velocity, surging on with a majestic outpouring of emotion which concludes this singular work in a mood of coursing defiance.

Placed between Kodály’s imposing works, the Sonata for Solo Cello by György Ligeti might seem almost as a makeweight. In fact, this succinct piece has an importance in its composer’s output matched only by its lengthy genesis. The first movement dates from 1948, when Ligeti was studying at the Budapest Academy, and was offered to his fellow student Annuss Virány who never played it. In 1953 he was encouraged by Vera Dénes to write a second movement complementary in every respect. On the grounds this sounded too modern, the communist-run Composers’ Union refused performance and the piece was unheard in public until 1979.

The first movement, Dialogo, was written at a time when Ligeti was concerned with making his music accessible to a wide public and thus betrays the presence of folk music as influenced by Kodály. Predominantly spare and inward, its initial cantilena is punctuated by Bartókian pizzicato gestures which offset any more sustained emotional progress. That said, a Bachian eloquence seems never far beneath the surface, making contrast with the second movement the more striking. Titled Capriccio and inspired by the solo violin caprices of Paganini, as well as the later piano works of Bartók, this music’s energy and impetus continue unabated; just occasionally disrupted by sudden pauses or unexpected hushed phrases, though with an unwavering conviction which is amply maintained right through to the decisive conclusion.

Richard Whitehouse

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