Várdai’s Great Kodály Performances

Kodaly front

KODÁLY: Sonata for Solo Cello. Cello Sonatina. Capriccio. Adagio (version for cello & piano). Cello Sonata / István Várdai, cel; Klára Würtz, pn / Brilliant Classics BRI95574

Cellist István Várdai was a new name to me, but I will not forget him in the future. He is clearly one of the more emotionally intense performers of his day, and at least in the context of this disc a man committed to presenting the music of Zoltan Kodály in its best light.

Someone once said that all solo violin and cello sonatas owe something to J.S. Bach’s pioneering works of the 18th century, but to be truthful I hear little or nothing of Bach in the opening work on this CD other than a few pizzicato notes here and there to suggest a rhythmic accompaniment. Rather, it is a lyrical effusion, pouring out of the cello as if a flow of lava from a volcano, with Várdai attacking the strings with vigor. The music itself is well composed and structured, but none of this would mean very much were it not for the emotion of the playing. Even the high trills are attacked as if Várdai’s very life depended on them. This is quite extraordinary playing by anyone’s judgment.

Of course, some of this music specifically calls for such an approach: the second movement of the solo cello sonata is marked “Adagio (con gran’ espressiono),” but that doesn’t mean that all cellists understand what “gran’ espressiono” really means. Years of being taught in conservatories to “let the music speak for itself,” i.e. don’t inject anything into the score that is not specifically called for, has bred a generation of tidy little robots, technically adroit but lacking in anything resembling feeling. Várai obviously disagrees with this approach. In the last movement, which has the most references to and suggestions of Hungarian/Magyar folk music, Várdai really digs in and delivers.

In the piano-accompanied works, pianist Klára Würtz proves equally emotional if a bit romanticized in phrasing. What I found interesting was that, for whatever reason, their playing seemed to operate on two different levels, since Várdai was so much stricter in tempo and phrasing. Whether or not this was done on purpose I don’t know; it didn’t really hurt the music much, but it was a bit odd to hear, like having an early pianist like Paderewski or de Pachmann accompany a more modern cellist like Feuermann or Starker. Interestingly, Várdai himself played with a more romantic bent in the a cappella Capriccio. The Adagio is played by both with a romantic bent, but this is one of Kodály’s more sentimental pieces anyway (it’s his first published work, from 1905, originally composed for violin and piano).

The fairly early (Op. 4) Cello Sonata also leans towards Romanticism, but its structure is more terse and its mood somewhat somber. The piano part is also less mushy in construction, with some of those unusual Magyar harmonies that Kodály and Bartók were collecting, and listening to, on homemade cylinder recordings. As the first movement develops, in fact, the music becomes ever tauter in form and quicker in tempo, yet it never quite escapes its sad feeling. The opening “Allegro con spirito” of the second (and final) movement breaks the melancholy mood for a while, giving both instruments shimmering figures and rapid scale passages, but it later switches to “Molto adagio” for the ending, bringing it to a somewhat sad conclusion.

This is a superb album of this music, highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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