Hungarian passion

Hungarian passion – Alisa Weilerstein plays music for solo cello by Bach and Kodály

alisa-weilersteinAlisa Weilerstein (cello) – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 5 January 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 7 February

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

What’s the music?

J.S. Bach – Solo Cello Suite no.5 (1724, 26 minutes)

Zoltán Kodály – Solo Cello Sonata (1915, 28 minutes)

What about the music?

Bach wrote six suites for the cello – or an instrument incredibly similar to it – and they have become some of his most popular works, suitable for students or performers alike. They are intensely private pieces but have a nice line in humour as well, especially in the faster sections, set to European dance forms of the time.

The first of Bach’s six suites was used in the film Master and Commander, on which more can be found here. The fifth is a sparse work and quite bleak at times. It is in six movements – with a Prelude, two faster dances (an Allemande (German) and a Courante (French), then a slow French one (Sarabande). Then we have a pair of lively Bourrées (French again) and a Gigue.

The Hungarian composer Kodály has written a much more modern sounding piece; even more so than its 1915 composition date suggests. Before performance the cellist is required to lower the lower of the four from a ‘C’ pitch to a ‘B’, darkening the colour considerably. Kodály uses a lot of dance music – like Bach – but this is much freer and has an improvised feel, the listener practically carried outside into the village by the directness of the writing.

Performance verdict

Despite a couple of lapses of tuning in the Bach, Alisa Weilerstein gives a carefully thought performance. In the Kodály she really comes into her own though, with plenty of fire and brimstone!

What should I listen out for?

Listen especially for these bits:

J.S. Bach

01:08 – the start of the Prelude, where Weilerstein plays very quietly with no vibrato*. The music is bare and at a funeral pace.

16:03 – the ‘Sarabande’ (a slow dance), which Weilerstein takes incredibly slowly. To me this sounded like an evocation of slowly falling tears.


26:44 – the arresting start of the Kodály Sonata. A lot of music for just one instrument!

30:00 – the second main theme. More serene and songful.

37:27 – the start of the second movement. A broad low ‘B’ leads through a slow melody to

38:00, where a distant tune brings the strongest use yet of Hungarian folk music. While the right hand is using the bow, the left hand is plucking the open string alongside.

41:36 – a powerful outburst on the cello.

57:55 – the incredibly fraught and powerful run to the finish, ending with an emphatic final double-stopped** chord.

Want to hear more?

Bach – if you enjoyed this performance something equally dramatic can be found in the form of the St John Passion, a vivid telling of the Gospel

Kodály – the Hungarian’s grasp of orchestral colour can be fully appreciated in the Dances of Galanta


*Vibrato – a way of adding extra expression to a piece of music, usually used by string players or singers. For string players it is controlled by the non-bowing arm, with a vibration applied to the finger pressed onto the string. For singers it is achieved through control of the voice.

**Double-stopped – playing more than one string at a time on the cello.

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