Wigmore Mondays – István Várdai & Sunwook Kim play Falla, Schubert & Kodály

István Várdai (cello, above) & Sunwook Kim (piano, below)

Falla Suite populaire espagnole (1914) (2:07 – 16:05 on the broadcast link below)
Schubert Arpeggione Sonata in A minor D821 (1824) (18:00 – 44:40)
Kodály Hungarian Rondo (1917) (46:46 – 56:28)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 15 July 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The cello has always been one of the instruments closest to a pure imitation of the voice. Its range and its ability to phrase are both qualities that make it ideal for arrangements of songs.

Spanish composer Manuel de Falla may have collected and published his Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Spanish Folksongs) for voice and piano, but they were soon arranged for violin and piano, then for cello and piano by Maurice Maréchal. The instrumental arrangements removed the second song and changed the order to make an effective concert suite. In this slightly understated but effective beginning from cellist István Várdai and pianist Sunwook Kim the music is laid bare, just as Falla would no doubt have preferred.

The first song, El paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth) (2:07), is quite restless but nicely ornamented in this performance with a subtle swing to the rhythms. The second, Nana (4:43), is bittersweet, falling on the side of sorrow, while the rustic Cancíon (7:17) makes nice use of the cello’s glassy harmonics. Polo evokes a lovely, summery heat haze with its dreamy thrummed chords (8:48) topped by a really powerful melodic line from Várdai. The quieter, yearning thoughts of Asturiana (10:18) make a more subtle impression afterwards, before the lively and uplifting Jota (12:59) completes the set.

The arpeggione was an instrument from Schubert’s time that did not last for long. With six strings and frets like a guitar, it did not catch on as a repertoire instrument, and so the substantial Arpeggione Sonata Schubert wrote for the instrument was threatened with redundancy, before finally being published in 1867. The work transcribes ideally for the cello or viola with piano accompaniment, its melodies lying under the fingers with deceptive ease.

The first movement (from 18:00) is the largest of all, expanding to make the most of what seems like quite a plaintive initial idea (the first section repeated from 21:15). It is an elegant dialogue between cello and piano, where at times the two feel like dancers in and out of hold. Some more vigorous diversions aside, the music returns to the slightly downcast mood of the opening, pensive rather than outgoing. István Várdai really makes his cello sing in the higher register, while Sunwook Kim shows a delicate touch on the piano.

The slow movement (30:32) is short but meaningful, with a floated melody from the cello threatening to make it as substantial a length as the first movement, but then gliding effortlessly into the finale (35:04) Here Schubert’s dance writing reappears, enjoyably so in the more upbeat minor key diversion (36:37) but returning to the slightly troubled air we became aware of earlier, enjoying itself to an extent but never fully throwing off the melancholic shackles apparently dogging him from the rejection of his opera Alfonso und Estrella.

No such issues in the Kodály Hungarian Rondo, like the Falla celebrating its origins with feeling. This piece, written in 1917 not published until 1976, starts with what seems like an innocuous tune on the cello (46:46) but one that goes on to dominate, reappearing for both instruments and in various guises. Complementing it are a host of other folksy melodies, most with a distinctive Hungarian flavour in their rhythm or melodic profile. As the piece progresses so the energy levels rise, to an impressive set of flourishes near the end, played with great panache by the two soloists.

As a generous encore, cooling the temperature after the Kodály, we had Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words Op.107 – the only one he wrote directly for cello and piano (57:50). Várdai was playing a Stradivarius cello dating from 1673 that used to belong to none other than Jacqueline du Pré – and he brought out the instrument’s gorgeous tone, especially in the midrange, and abundantly in the Kodály. With Kim’s sensitive accompaniment, they made it an extremely enjoyable concert with which to close the Wigmore Hall’s 2018-19 lunchtime season. See you for more in September!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard below. István Várdai has recorded the arrangement of the Falla suite, but not the pieces by Schubert or Kodály. The Mendelssohn is played by Jacqueline du Pré – possibly on the cello heard in this very concert! – accompanied by her mother Iris.

Várdai has, however, completed a disc of works for cello by the Hungarian composer that include one of the cellist’s ultimate tests, the Sonata for Solo Cello:

You can watch a video of Várdai playing Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello with violinist Gilles Apap, at the HarrisonParrott website:

Kodály’s music is colourful and passionate, staying very close to the composer’s roots. This selection of orchestral works serves as the ideal introduction to his tuneful music, conducted by conductors and fellow countrymen Ádám and Iván Fischer:

On record: Buffalo PO / Falletta – Kodály: Orchestral Works (Naxos)

Kodály Orchestral Works Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra / JoAnn Falletta

Kodály
Dances of Galánta (1933)
Concerto for Orchestra (1939-40)
Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, ‘The Peacock’ (1938-39)
Dances of Marosszek (1930)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

An exploration of the Hungarian composer’s colourful orchestral works from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and JoAnn Falletta, this disc includes established favourites (the Dances of Galánta and Peacock Variations), the underrated Dances of Marosszek and a relative rarity in the Concerto for Orchestra, completed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1940.

What’s the music like?

Richly scored and full to bursting with good tunes. The Dances of Galánta, the composer’s home for seven years in his youth, are a brilliant curtain raiser. As Edward Yadzinski says in the booklet note they are ‘a travelogue of gipsy spirit’. The tunes are rich with melodic ornaments and move between quick, energetic dances and slow, seductive ones.

The Dances of Marosszek (a region of northern Romania) should be better known. Originally written for piano, they begin with a surging theme in the cellos that casts a spell on the piece, heavy on allure but with some lovely softer contrasts.

The Peacock Variations are great fun, Kodály taking a legendary folk song and casting it in different speeds, harmonies and instrumentation to demonstrate its versatility. At times he reduces the orchestration, and brings solo instruments to the fore – notably in Variation XI, where cor anglais and woodwind are set against soft strings.

The Concerto for Orchestra is much more than a virtuoso showpiece, bringing in different sections of the orchestra into the Hungarian folk world. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra may be better known and more adventurous in its approach, but this is a fascinating alternative.

Does it all work?

Yes. This is extremely well performed, and the Buffalo string and winds are full of the flavour, if understandably not always getting to the heart of the folksy melodies. An interpretation from a ‘home’ orchestra almost always brings a higher level of authenticity when folk melodies are to the fore, but the Buffalo do still revel in the colour and tuneful abandon of these scores.

Is it recommended?

Yes. These may not be outright recommendations for each piece, perhaps, but they offer alternatives that show how well Kodály wrote for orchestra and how, in the Concerto for Orchestra, he could turn a potentially dutiful work commission into 20 minutes of fun.

You can head to the Naxos website for a podcast from conductor JoAnn Falletta on Kodály’s orchestral works ear this disc on Spotify here:

Wigmore Mondays – Pekka Kuusisto & Nicolas Altstaedt: Music for violin and cello

kuusisto-altstaedt

Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Nicolas Altstaedt (cello)

Wigmore Hall, London, 23 May 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07c3r1b

Available until 23 June

What’s the music?

J.S.Bach – Two part inventions (c1720-23) interspersed with Widmann – Duos for violin and cello (2008) (24 minutes)

Ravel – Sonata for violin and cello (1920-22) (23 minutes)

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below where available. Not all of the Widmann pieces have been recorded yet, but where possible good alternative versions have been used:

About the music

As the Wigmore Hall programme writer Gerald Larner notes, the combination of violin and cello is a surprisingly scarce one in classical music. There are hardly any recognised works for the pairing, the two most notable being duos by Ravel and Kodály, but just recently the German composer and clarinettist Jörg Widmann (b1973) has shown real creativity in his 24 duos.

They make an ideal contrast with the Bach Inventions, which transcribe seamlessly from keyboard to violin and cello, the violin taking the right hand part and the cello the left. In doing so they bring out the counterpoint behind the music. Widmann’s pieces are more about instrumental colour, but they have melody too – and he enjoys sending up particular dance forms and such, especially when he includes a James Bond theme in the final piece!

Even a composer as accomplished as Ravel did not find the combination of violin and cello an easy one. He began the Sonata in 1920 as a tribute to Debussy, but did not finish it for another year and a half, distracted by a house move and fuelled by the need to give his music a new austerity. Despite the use of only two lines the composer’s flair for harmonic movement still comes through, though the piece does still sound impressively modern.

Performance verdict

A wholly enjoyable concert, thanks to the chemistry between two performers who clearly enjoy their craft. Pekka Kuusisto has always been a charismatic violinist but Nicolas Altstaedt more than matched him here, and because they were in close proximity on the Wigmore Hall stage it was easy to see them as one instrument rather than two.

The interpolation of Bach and Widmann was a clever one, because the music of the former was notable for clean lines and impeccably worked out counterpoint, while the latter concentrated on colours, feelings and dance forms. Moving between the two extremes was a constant source of musical stimulation, and was brilliantly performed – especially in the final Widmann piece, a real tour de force.

The Ravel was superb, helped by the ability of these performers to project while playing incredibly quietly. Because of this the slow movement was the most searching of the four emotionally, potentially a tribute to the departed Debussy. The faster movements were thrilling, showing Ravel’s close relationship with differing dance forms but also the many and varied ways in which he extracts instrumental colour.

The encore, Sibelius’ first published piece, was inspired in its simplicity.

What should I listen out for?

Bach / Widmann

1:38 Bach Invention no.1 in C – there is a beautiful simplicity about Bach’s writing as the violin takes what would have been the right hand of the keyboard, and the cello the left. The counterpoint (i.e. the intertwining of melodies between the instruments) is immaculate.

3:19 Widmann Duo no. XIV Capriccio­ – Widmann’s coloristic effects include snapped pizzicato (plucking) and sudden, jarring phrases, as though the instruments are having a bit of a bout.

5:06 Bach Invention no.4 in D minor­ – after the outbursts of the Widmann it is almost a surprise to return to the clean tonality of the Bach, but it works well – and again the cello part finds itself in exact imitation of the violin

6:10 Widmann Duo no. XVI Petit ballet mécanique (Pas de deux) – a short and shady duo this, with short phrases and implied moods that never fully establish themselves.

7:10 Bach Invention no.6 in E – again Bach’s simplicity is all that matters here. The key of E major makes for a nice, open sound as the strings play with little vibrato.

11:17 Widmann Duo no. XXII Lamento – here Widmann is casting his mind back to the Baroque period, and the strings play close together with no vibrato – a stark sound

13:48 Bach Invention no.8 in F – a much quicker invention that works well in its string arrangement, the rapid movement of Bach’s figures passed between the instruments

14:41 Widmann Duo no. XXI Valse bavaroise – an exaggerated form of pastiche from Widmann here, with scratchy discords and long notes flying between the instruments, not to mention some pretty outrageous glissando passages from the cello!

16:46 Bach Invention no.14 in B flat – a quieter, more reverential piece.

18:38 Widmann Duo no. XIII Vier Strophen vom Heimweh – another slow Widmann piece, using a lot of double stopping so that it sounds more like a string quartet. Again the sound is cold, due to the use of mutes and the almost complete lack of vibrato.

20:48 Bach Invention no.15 in B minor – a solemn mood hangs over this invention, which again is played with very little vibrato – though the players do allow themselves a few liberties with variations of speed and volume.

22:31 Widmann Duo no. XXIV Toccatina all’inglese – a tour de force of virtuosity, this is the first of the Widmann pieces to be an obvious display vehicle for the two players, who rush up and down the fingerboard. There is an extended passage of plucking that briefly gives the music a Far Eastern feel, and there is a tune – where can you spot On her Majesty’s Secret Service?

Ravel

29:00 The first movement has shadowy beginnings, emerging as though from the mists – with the violin and cello very close together as they exchange musical thoughts. The clean timbres are a result of the players using harmonics – where the string is very lightly touched with the fingers on the left hand rather than pressed.

35:05 A faster movement that begins with both instruments plucking, and finds Ravel exploring a great many colours and combinations from this seemingly limited instrumental pairing. The sparse texture is a challenge for him, and sometimes he enhances it with scratched phrases and an almost complete lack of sustain, as in the passage from 36:10 onwards, with the cello’s furious chords.

39:08 The slow movement, a bleak utterance – and it is tempting to think it might owe its inspiration to the recently finished First World War. It takes a long time for the mood to rise above anything other than grim contemplation, but when it does there is a passionate piece of writing in the centre of the movement. Ravel, though is ultimately a positive composer, and this can be heard in the last phrases, which effectively shift the music from darkness to light.

46:04 The last movement reasserts a positive frame of mind with a vigorous jig, the two instruments playing with plenty of energy and rhythmic punch. The tune is catchy too! Ravel is the master of using instrumental effects for colour rather than for their own sake, and that is very much the case here, with harmonics, pizzicato, double stopping and different bowing techniques giving him a wide variety of shades. It is partly what makes this duo such compelling listening.

Encore

54:40 The fascinating encore is Water Droplets, the first published piece by the eight year old Jean Sibelius. It is incredibly simple – played entirely in pizzicato – but is all the more effective for that, as it paints such a vivid picture in its minute-long duration!

Further listening

Having mentioned the Kodály Duo for violin and cello it makes sense to include that as the extra listening here – on the same album as a substantial work for the combination by Erwin Schulhoff:

Meanwhile the video clip below gives an introduction to Jörg Widmann’s music for string quartet:

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):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04wmjx6

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.

Kodály

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

Glossary

*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.