Natalie Clein on the music of Kodály and the challenges of Hungarian cello music
The cellist has turned to Zoltan Kodály for her latest CD. She tells us about the challenges of the Hungarian’s music for solo cello
Kodály’s Sonata, Op. 8, features you on the cello, and only you! How challenging is it playing a solo work over half an hour long?
Solo playing is always challenging. I think, though, the Sonata is one of the great pieces composed for solo cello after the Bach suites. When you’re not playing with anyone else, you have to imagine that they’re there. That can be very satisfying. I find myself imagining all kinds of different instruments here, or what Kodály might have been witnessing when he was making his studies (of folk music) – a solo voice singing, accompaniment from a zither or cimbalom, rhythmic dancing and so on. It’s never lonely!
Is it physically demanding?
Yes. You’re spanning the entire width and breadth of the instrument with both arms. Also there’s the point of view of the sheer stamina needed to play a technically challenging piece that lasts half an hour by yourself – there have been times in concerts when I’ve thought ‘If I stop playing now, then everything will just grind to a halt!’. That said, it gets easier the more you play it, as you learn how to conserve your energy in certain places.
I understand that in the Sonata you’re not playing the cello in quite the normal way?
Importantly, Kodály asks for the bottom two strings to be tuned down by a semi-tone – the technical term is ‘scordatura’ – and this creates such a full sonority on the instrument that it turns it almost into something that doesn’t need an accompanying voice. This sonority is really attractive to a listener’s ear, and the cello resonates in a different way from normal, which makes it very good fun to play.
Describe the Sonata in general.
There’s a pentatonic, folk harmony to the whole thing. The work is based on the folk melodies that Kodály had been notating down on his ethnomusicological travels. They are weaved into the Sonata in a wonderful way – it’s got Hungarian flavour right through it. In the central movement of the three, the Adagio, the composer asks for long, long single lines with just a pizzicato or a little effect here and there to add the faint suggestion of harmony. It’s a brooding movement and one just has to delve into it.
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How much does Kodály’s famed expertise as a singing teacher come across in his cello music?
The Nine Epigrams (for cello and piano) are a very good example of Kodály’s vocal method, which is one reason why I’ve included them on the disc – the other is that they are really beautiful miniatures in themselves. Kodály never discriminated between vocal and instrumental music and the Epigrams could be either sung or played.
Is Kodály a difficult sell in the concert hall?
He is. It’s slightly frustrating because people say ‘Ooh, I’m not sure. It sounds too modern.’ But once you get them through the door, he’s always a winner. And hopefully I’ll be able to use this new recording to convince people!
Interview by Jeremy Pound
Natalie Clein's Kodály disc is available now (Hyperion CDA67829)