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Zoltan KODÁLY (1882-1967)

Sonata, Op.8 (1915) [32:02]
Osvaldo GOLIJOV (b.1960)
Omaramor (1991) [8:15]
Gaspar CASSADÓ (1897-1966)
Suite per violoncello (1926) [16:10]
Bright SHENG (b.1955)
Seven Tunes Heard in China (1995) [19:41]
Alisa Weilerstein (cello)
rec. Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany, 2013.
DECCA 478 5296 [76:08]

Alisa Weilerstein’s declared aim with this solo debut disc was to ‘record some of my favourite pieces, and each one of them has a folk element, a fantasy element and a meditative element.’ Much of Kodály’s sonata certainly fulfils the meditative remit and also includes some carefully woven folk references. Perhaps it is unsurprising that, following Bach’s sensational cello suites, almost no one was tempted to try to meet the challenge represented by those amazing pieces during the ensuing two hundred years. Maybe they felt, as Brahms did when trying to write a symphony, that Beethoven was always at his shoulder reminding him of the standard he should have as an aim.

As Weilerstein points out the cello never had its Paganini to push its boundaries until Pablo Casals came along. Then during the First World War Zoltan Kodály wrote his mighty sonata, a work of tremendous scope, full of heartfelt anguish at the senseless futility of that devastating conflict. For me there is no instrument better able to express despair and the deepest sorrow than the cello. This sonata is packed full of feelings of unbearable grief. The cello almost takes on a human personality as it wears these emotions on its musical sleeve. Kodály said of this work that “in twenty-five years no cellist will be accepted into the world of cellists who does not play my piece.” While some might interpret this as self-opinionated, once you have heard it you can only agree that it is a statement that makes perfect sense. Indeed in 1956 it was made a set-piece for the Casals Competition in Mexico City.

Argentinean-Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov drew as inspiration for his piece Omaramor the songs of the legendary Argentinean tango singer Carlos Gardel who, though he was killed in a plane crash in 1935, is still very much alive in the hearts of Buenos Aireans. As Helen Wallace explains in the liner-notes Golijov takes as the basis for this work one of Gardel’s most iconic songs My Beloved Buenos Aires. He treats the chords of this music as if they were the streets and the music wanders through them revealing the song’s melody.

From Hungary and Argentina we arrive in Spain and music by Catalan composer Gaspar Cassadó, a student of Casals. His cello sonata, though its opening sarabande clearly draws on Kodály’s model, soon shows its Iberian origins. The Catalan dance the sardana dominates the second movement then steps aside for others. The work closes with a spirited jota which has variants from most Spanish regions. The music is richly scored with the cello never seeming alone. It mimics an accordion in the sardana and delights in the whirling jota. This music will surely whet anyone’s appetite to hear more by Cassadó.

Bright Sheng is one of those composers who ended up drawing strength from a harsh decision by the State during the disastrous Cultural Revolution. They sent him away to a province close to Tibet and this resulted in his music being informed by the folk music of many regions. The experience set him on a lifelong quest to note down as many of these regional sounds as possible — a life’s work in such a vast country. These delightful and charming pieces are extremely evocative of everything you think of when it comes to Chinese music. When the two stringed ban hu is invoked its uniquely oriental sound leaves us in no doubt as to where we are. We are taken on a journey to seven regions from Tibet to Taiwan, from Mongolia to Yunnan. These folk-inspired melodies vary from delicate sounds in the elegiac Little cabbage to the stumbling drunk described in The Drunken Fisherman. The latter calls upon the cellist to use a guitar pick, thumb and fingernail in imitation of the Qin: seven string Chinese zither. The cello’s highest register opens Diu Diu Dong describing a train journey as the music rattles along. The piece ends with a “hiss” from the player to evoke escaping steam as the train pulls to a halt. The Mongolian Pastoral Ballade is a mixture of melancholia and spiky rhythms. The delicacy of its sad opening returns to close the piece. The final item is based upon a Tibetan Dance and this time the cellist has to tap the top of the instrument to invoke a drum. This knockabout dance radiates plenty of energy and finishes with a flourish.

As a solo debut disc Alisa Weilerstein has chosen a widely varied programme that showcases her astonishing virtuosity. It also introduces the listener to repertoire that is not often heard, more’s the pity. This is a thoroughly winning programme and I hope it’s not the only solo disc she makes. There is much else to go at in addition to those ‘other cello suites’.

Steve Arloff