More Than Just a Showcase for Flashy Cellistic Fireworks

By Vittes, Laurence | Strings, March 2012 | Go to article overview

More Than Just a Showcase for Flashy Cellistic Fireworks


Vittes, Laurence, Strings


Natalie Clein on playing the Kodaly Sonata for solo cello, Op. 8

In photographs, the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) is commonly depicted as a senior with a grizzled beard and the look of someone who'd gone through the 20th century's terrible upheavals. However, the Kodaly who wrote the Solo Cello Sonata, Op. 8, in 1915 for cellist Jeno Kerpely of the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet (which had premiered the first four Bartok string quartets) was neither old nor grizzled. That Kodaly (pronounced ko-die) was a 33-yearold composer in the forefront, along with his colleague Bela Bartok, of the new century's frontier, A century later, the Solo Cello Sonata has become one of the touchstones of his career and a serious rival in the genre to Bach's Six Suites.

The young English cellist Natalie Clein's 2010 Hyperion recording of the Kodaly is far more than just an emotionally intense, brilliant virtuoso interpretation - it represents a personal and artistic challenge. She seems to be pushing herself to the limit, making it to the finish line just ahead of her strength giving out.

MASTERING THE SCORDATURA TUNING

The sonata is a three-movement work - Allegro maestoso ma appassionato, Adagio (con grand espressione), and Allegro molto vivace - that employs modal inflections, pentatonic scales, and various folk idioms in ways that were groundbreaking at the time, and led the composer's contemporaries to hail him as a master of form. "Kodaly 's compositions are characterized in the main by rich melodic invention, a perfect sense of form, a certain predilection for melancholy and uncertainty," Bartok wrote of his friend's work. "He does not seek Dionysian intoxication - he strives for inner contemplation. . . . His music is not the kind described nowadays as modern. It has nothing to do with the new atonal, bitonal, or polytonal music - everything in it is based on the principle of tonal balance. His idiom is nevertheless new; he says things that have never been uttered before and demonstrates thereby that the tonal principle has not lost its raison d'etre as yet."

The technique required to execute this challenging piece can be tricky. When asked about the scordatura tuning of the G and C strings (to FK and B, respectively), Gein jokes that it is only a problem if you have perfect pitch, because it can be distracting when "what comes out is not what you're reading. If you can just not worry about what the music seems to read, it's easier."

But Clein suggests that the scordatura is a key element in recreating "the sounds and sights Kodaly had experienced on his ethnomusicological travels" to remote Slavic villages in search of folk music.

She separates those who want to study the sonata into three categories:

* those who need to "do lots of studies in order to change their hand position on the strings" and other similar basic work;

* advanced students who a re ready to work on "problems of phrasing, the form of the whole page, what the dynamics and tempo markings mean, tempo markings, and how all of these elements, and more, are interrelated";

* and the occasional "fantastic student, coming to me at the end of her or his advanced studies, feeling like a colleague whom I ask what I ask myself every day: How can we go deeper into the piece?"

STUDY THE SCORE & MORE

Clein advises lookingjclosely at the score, the folk music of the region, and even the Hungarian language. "Immerse yourself in Kodaly, Bartok, and the folk music that came from their world and work as ethnomusicologists, so that their musical language, with its unique rhythms and accents, becomes more familiar. There are rhythms and emphasis on different notes that are different than music from other countries," she says, adding ruefully, "I wish I spoke Hungarian - I'm sure it wouldhelp me to understand Hungarian music better. …

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