Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Janos Starker: Dohnányi: Cello Concerto, Op. 12; Kodály: Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8, 1958
Janos Starker is a Hungarian Jewish cellist of Polish and Ukranian descent who has lived in the U.S. since the late 40's. He teaches at Indiana University's Jacob School of Music and apparently still performs on rare occasions. He played cello from a young age and according to wikipedia had five regular students of his own by the time he was 12. His technical ability is astounding, but what makes him an amazing musician is the finesse, control, and care that define every second of these performances. With Starker's help and that of a few others, I'm starting to understand how a performer can shape a piece by interpreting it on a level that exceeds the artistic vision of normal musicians. As Starker brings out the beauty in the works of these composers, we hear a melding of great musical minds; it is truly a collaborative process even though these works were written decades before this performance, before Starker was even born.
The sonically rich A side features Starker playing over the Philharmonia Orchestra (of London) conducted by Walter Süsskind. Kodály's piece, in spite of its modest instrumentation, is intense and energetic and covers a surprising amount of ground. The liner notes give an interesting account of Kodály. As author Frank Hampson put it, his music "scratches the surface" of the Eastern European folk music that inspires it while Béla Bartok's "dug deep" in this regard. (Incidentally, the two men were friends and made some expeditions to collect folk songs together.) Hampson is careful to point out that Kodály's pieces are equally informed by a deep understanding of and respect for folk music, it's just that his approach grafts folk themes "onto a fundamentally French Impressionist background." He touts Kodály's music as genuinely Hungarian and deeply personal. Kodály's compositional practices indicate an awareness of the then-current European notion that the soul of the people resides in an endangered body of folklore kept alive in mostly marginalized corners of the countryside where progress has yet to pave over the nation's quaint traditions. Still, I can't help but read his fusion of this music with a distinctly modern style (not to suggest that Bartok was any kind of purist) as a nod to the fact that he was living in a world much bigger than his own country. His time studying music in other parts of Europe, notably France, must have made him aware of this. Kodály's music acknowledges that the though he desires to rediscover his roots through folk forms, he and most of his listeners were born a ways away from these folk roots, and musical forms from other parts of the world may be just as relevant to them as homeland varieties. I imagine that Starker, whose background was even more international than Kodály's, must have appreciated these elements in Kodály's work, although I'm not well enough acquainted with Hungarian folk music myself to recognize its influence on this sonata.