Weilerstein Gives Stunning Account of Kodály Sonata for Solo Cello at SummerFest 2020

Alisa Weilerstein had played barely three minutes of Zoltán Kódaly’s rapturous Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8, when I was seized with the overpowering realization: this is why love SummerFest! When an accomplished musician or an electric ensemble revives an unjustly overlooked piece of repertory—or unveils a dashing premiere—the elation of discovery is a unique satisfaction. And it lifts my spirit unlike and other musical feat, no matter how virtuosic.

Alisa Weilerstein

Alisa Weilerstein [photo (c.) Christian Steiner]

Fortunately, Weilerstein combined discovery and virtuoso execution in this 35-minute rhapsody disguised as a sonata that fuses classical and Central European folkloric string playing techniques with Kodály’s astounding imagination. Sitting alone on the stage of the empty Baker-Baum Concert Hall, her mesmerizing performance of Kodály’s profoundly exotic work suggested an aboriginal rite, a communication with primordial realms and spirits. And I did not want it to stop!

The Sonata, written in 1915, opens with a bold cadenza that soon lifts into unexpected lyrical flights and entrancing modal themes that unexpectedly morph into impassioned bravura assertions, exploiting the entire range of the cello. Like most middle movements, Kodály’s Adagio provides a slow, centered contrast to the energetic outer movements. Somber, almost elegiac themes rumble from the lowest cello range—a bit of scordatura gives the instrument a lower than usual bass range—and Weilerstein found a wide spectrum of colors, deft harmonics, and varied pizzicato attacks to construct this kaleidoscopic otherworldly ethos. If the closing movement, a bold Allegro molto vivace, brings back the exuberance of the first movement, the composer offers an astute selection of contrasting techniques to create the mood: a sharply defined moto perpetuo opening, folk-derived tremolandos, and an abundance of earthy dance rhythms.

Unlike his close friend Béla Bartók, Kodály was a more pragmatic composer, so classical music aficionados remember him for his later, more ingratiating orchestral works such as the Dances of Galánta that cautious music directors like to program. But the Kodály dear to my heart is the audacious composer of chamber music such as his 1914 Duo for Violin and Cello and this nonpareil Sonata for Solo Cello.

SummerFest 2020 Music Director Inon Barnatan wisely followed the Kodály with Joseph Suk’s Piano Quartet in A Minor, another rich but rarely programmed gem. Written in 1891 by the unusually precocious 17-year-old Suk, his Piano Quartet brims with fresh ideas deftly structured over three movements, instead of the usual four. Suk’s gift for shaping a graceful melodic line—after all he was a pupil on Antonín Dvořák—suffuses this exhilarating chamber work.

Barnatan appropriately grounded the quartet with authoritative work at the piano, especially in the urgent, animated middle section of the Adagio and in the final movement, Allegro con fuoco, where the piano introduces the bracing rondo theme. Cellist Clive Greensmith offered the right touch of nostalgia as he crafted the dulcet theme that opens the Adagio, and violinist Tessa Lark and violist Yura Lee energized the work’s upper voices with fluid, shapely contours. If SummerFest has offered this Suk Piano Quartet in previous seasons, I must have missed those performances, but hearing this performance came as a most welcome surprise to this jaded critic.

Yura Lee proved her prowess as violinist opening the program with Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E Minor, K. 304. Accompanied by pianist Barnatan, she offered the composer’s assertive, angular themes with decisive articulation and brisk rhythmic clarity. Perhaps because she is such a fine violist, she imbued the violin’s lower range with an unusually opulent timbre that became silvery only when she ascended into the instrument’s upper ranges. Although this sonata is short—a mere pair of movements—Lee and Barnatan gave a probing, multi-hued account of this bracing work from Mozart at age 22.

The final online program of SummerFest 2020 can be heard this evening, August 29, at 7:00 p.m. See ljms.org for online access.

1 Comment

  1. KMW on August 29, 2020 at 10:24 am

    Best to date.

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