Ildikó Szabó Explores Her Heritage

cover HCD32813

HERITAGE / LIGETI: Solo Cello Sonata. EÖTVÖS: Two Poems to Polly. KURTÁG: Faith. János Pilinszky: Gérard de Nerval. Shadows. Hommage à John Cage. The Hilary Jig. C. SZABÓ: Suite for Solo Cello with Cowbells. KODÁLY: Solo Cello Sonata / Ilkidó Szabó, cello / Hungaroton HCD32813

Hungarian cellist Ildikó Szabó, former protégé of János Starker (with whom she studied every summer) and second prize winner at the Pablo Casals International Cello Competition, presents here an album of music by her favorite native composers. According to the notes, “Her close collaboration with Péter Eötvös and György Kurtág resulted in bringing together this album.” Two of the pieces presented here, Kurtág’s The Hilary Jig and Csaba Szabó’s Suite for Solo Cello with Cowbells, are first recordings.

Ildikó says in the liner notes that Starker told her “we play concerts for the audience, and we make the recordings for ourselves.” She wasn’t quite sure what to make of that when she first heard it, but later realized that “In the studio we have the chance to set down experiences and ideas that have been maturing for many years, an interpretation we consider to be ideal.” Her personal relationships with both Eötvös and Kurtág helped inspire the idea for this album.

I have two excellent recordings of Ligeti’s Solo Cello Sonata, by Elena Gaponenko and Rohan de Saram. Both are rich, fruity performances played with plenty of passion. Szabó, however, plays them in a style that I recognize as being like Starker: direct, clean, and somewhat dry in tone. I liked some of Starker’s recordings, but he was never a big favorite of mine, and his rather dry sound was the principal reason. Now, this is not to criticize Szabó’s technique or style; in these, she is perfect; but to make a modern cello playing modern music sound like a straight-tone instrument doing Bach is simply not to my taste.

In every other respect, however, she is excellent. She definitely knows this music inside and out, and she does try to project the proper feeling. Since Ligeti was himself a Hungarian, this may even be the way he preferred to hear this work. But I’ll let you be the judge. You may feel entirely different from me.

When I got to Eötvös’ Two Poems for Polly, however, I was hooked. Szabó plays and speaks these pieces with a wonderful style, both in her speaking and her cello playing. It’s a shame, however, that the texts of these two poems aren’t included in the booklet…although, at one point, Szabó appears to be speaking in English, so perhaps I just need to try to decipher the words through her heavy accent. That, however, is the only blemish in an otherwise superb performance, and here Szabó also varies her cello tone, occasionally producing a very bright sound.

The other pieces by Eötvös, all rather short, are played equally well. My favorite was Shadows; my least favorite was Hommage à John Cage, one of the biggest frauds ever perpetrated on the classical music community. The previously unrecorded Hilary Jig is an interesting piece, but not nearly as fascinating as Csaba Szabó’s bizarre suite for solo cello and cowbells. This is almost microtonal music, the cellist slithering up and down the strings, with some pauses and even dead stops written into the score. The Finale is particularly spellbinding, with virtuoso swoops upward and a technique of plucking a string and making that sound move upward in a portamento as well. This is a stunning work and a stunning performance.

Interestingly, Szabó plays the Kodály sonata with a richer tone and more attractive vibrato. I would rate her performance as being nearly as good as than og Gaponenko, who also recorded this work.

Overall, then, a very interesting album and a fine personal statement by a very talented and obviously sincere artist.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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