How many listeners know Kodaly’s Sonata for solo cello? The work has a monumental reputation among cellists, but so do Weber’s concertos among clarinetists, which have still not converted me. I was asked recently by Bill Butt, a teaching colleague at the RIAM, to introduce his performance of the Sonata at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. (Non-Irish readers may better recognize this Gallery from its earlier name in Yeats’s great poem, ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’.)

The high claims are not exaggerated. The Sonata grips the listener from the first bar and does not let up for the remaining half hour of its duration. Bill Butt proved a brilliant interpreter, having the right combination of steel and fire to meet its terrifying demands.

What makes the Sonata a great work? Firstly, and indispensably, inspired thematic invention. Consider the opening melody: a b-dorian, Hungarian-flavoured span of melody that makes you sense what it must have been like to hear Cicero in person launch the Phillipics against Mark Antony. You cannot strictly say that the first movement develops this theme, for it is never not there: the first movement is the theme. Yet there is no sense of redundant repetition either, such is the compositional technique.

The slow movement extends cello technique into realms not previously imagined. Consider the extraordinary double stop trills on page 8 of the score, or the haunting deployment of left-hand pizzicati.

The finale’s czardas will save you ever having to listen to another. The sound of the instrument is orchestral with its grinding open-string drones. At the extraordinary page 16, this orchestral timbre assumes a kind of Sibelian intensity and transcendence. Even in live performance you cannot believe one player and one instrument are doing it all. The rush to the end is breath-taking.

It has been truly said that this work by itself makes Kodaly one of Hungary’s greatest composers. He became better known later on as an educationist, and this damaged his creative reputation for, as we all know, you cannot be good at two things. It is interesting, by the way, that the kind of people who hold Kodaly’s educational status against him have no similar problem with Schoenberg’s. Why?

You can see a great performance of this work on YouTube by Janos Starker. Be warned that he makes a cut in the finale that is common among players of this work.

The Sonata revived the fortunes of the solo cello after a 200 year gap, just as Bartok’s Sonata for solo violin revived that medium. Coincidence or zeitgeist? Whichever, we are the better by two masterpieces.

Kevin O’Connell’s Accord for solo cello was premiered by Bill Butt in Beijing in March 2010.

Bill Butt’s recording of the cello suites of Benjamin Britten is available on the Apex label.

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