KODÁLY: Sonatina.* Solo Cello Sonata. Duo for Cello & Violin+ / Julian Steckel, cel; *Paul Rivinius, pno; +Antje Weithaus, vln / Avi 8553948D
With the exception of the Sonatina, these are somewhat unusual works by Zoltán Kodály that are played on this CD by Julian Steckel, a cellist with a really deep, rich tone, similar to that of the great British cellist Colin Carr (see my article on Carr in this blog), which is recorded fairly well here. Being an early work (Op. 4), the Sonatina is scarcely one of Kodály’s meatiest works but, being tonal and accessible (read: Pretty), it is quite popular, and Steckel plays it with all the Romantic soul in his heart. Fortunately, Paul Rivinius’ piano playing has backbone and drive, which lifts it from the realm of bathos.
The solo cello sonata, though written earlier (1915), is an entirely different animal, dramatic and edgy with several of the Magyar-influenced harmonies that Kodály, along with his friend Bartók, collected on cylinder recordings in their field research. Moreover, Kodály develops this piece exceptionally well, taking the hard, edgy theme of the first movement and blending it with a more lyrical one as the music moves along. Would that several of our “modern” composers, who know how to write edgy but undeveloped music, listen to this work and understand what it means to actually write music. In the “Adagio,” Steckel gets very deep into the feeling of the music without leaning towards sentimentality, something he prides himself on being able to do. He is known for diving into the scores of the music he plays, investigating every nook and cranny in order to find the unity in a work. I think that Kodály would absolutely love his interpretation of this unusual and difficult sonata. The second movement is particularly long and the musical thread seems fragmented, as if Kodály had changed his mind two or three times while writing it, but Steckel hang in there with him and manages to make us realize that the music represents different but complementary changes of mood. In the third movement, a much tighter-written piece than the first two, Steckel really digs in and plays as if his life depended on it. In short, marvelous music played with commitment and deep emotion. How could one ask for anything more?
The violin-cello duo is also an interesting piece, lying stylistically somewhere between the Romantic Sonatina and the more modern-sounding solo cello sonata. Antje Weithaus makes a good foil for Steckel, complementing his intense playing with sweet, sonorous tones. Is this what Kodály wanted? I would assume so, since Steckel could have chosen another violinist if this wasn’t what the composer intended. At times it works the other way around, the cello playing a soaring melody while the violin plays edgy figures, but more often it’s not. Kodály also has the duo play very seldom with each other; most of the time, they’re playing opposing lines, either in complementary harmony or in counterpoint. The second-movement “Adagio” moves in a slow, almost elegiac manner, with the cellist playing long, flowing notes and the violinist playing light, airy lines above him. At the 2:50 mark, the music suddenly becomes more dramatic, with the violin screaming in its upper range while the cello plays low, rumbling notes, almost like the beginning of an earthquake, before suddenly joining the violin in playing agonized lines of its own.
In the third movement, the duo chase each others’ tails in an emotional roller-coaster that has peaks and valleys, all of it in a tempo that continually shifts and changes from fast to slow and back again. At the 3:10 mark, they play a bit of what sounds like a peasant dance, interrupted by tremolos on the violin and grunted low notes from the cello, which then also plays pizzicato in places.
This is an outstanding CD, one that should put Julian Steckel on the map, for those who hadn’t heard him before, as one of the finest cellists around today.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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