Last week at Merkin Concert Hall, the Vienna Philharmonic’s principal cellist, Tamas Varga played a transcendent, majestic solo concert built around Kodaly’s Sonata for Violincello. Aaron Jay Kernis, who was in the audience, demurred that he’d never heard the piece before Varga had commissioned him and two others to write solo works to accompany the Hungarian composer’s “great masterwork,” as he called it. He wasn’t kidding.
It’s a symphony for solo cello, requiring all sorts of extended technique: harmonics, simultaneous pizzicato and bowing, and maddening metric shifts, among other things. But Varga dug in with relish. Complicating matters is that the two lowest strings are downtuned, something that the rest of the pieces on the bill shared. Varga cut loose churning rivers of low-register chords before rising to a regal theme that sounded suspiciously sardonic. Distantly Bartokian acidity and Romany-tinged flair were muted in the adagio section but burst into bracing focus in the climactic third movement, which ended cold and unresolved. Throughout the work, Varga’s pacing enhanced the suspense, through a couple of wry Beethovenesque false endings, stormy gusts, brooding lulls and finally the flames that leapt from his bow.
The new pieces were fascinating as well. Kernis’ Blues for Mr. Z was the most allusive yet most resonantly colorful of the three. The composer related that just as Kodaly had drawn on the folk music of his native Hungary, he’d decided to incorporate some austere minor-key blues, which turned out more often than not to be implied rather than explicitly evoked.
Varga opened with a meticulously altered stroll through Gregory Vajda’s Captain Hume’s Last Pavin for Violincello. Inspired by a seventeenth-century rant by British composer Tobias Hume, it built toward several possible resolutions that never arrived. Laszlo Vidovszky’s Two Paraphrases for Violincello Solo, based on two themes from the Kodaly work, built enigmatically ambered variations and ended with a shout out to the composer’s shape note system which is ubiquitous in Hungarian music education. Did Kodaly get the idea from the American shape note system, which was very popular in religious and choral music in the early 1800s? That merits further study.
Varga closed with a plaintive, calmly paced, Bach-influenced miniature written by his son, who couldn’t make it to the show…because he was in school. How many young composers have such a brilliant advocate for their work as Varga? And how many brilliant cellists have kids who can write as poignantly as Varga’s son?
This concert was part of the High Note Hungary series staged by the Hungarian Cultural Center, who have been putting on some incredible shows around town over the last couple of years. The best way to stay on top of what’s happening is to get on their email list: this one was a late addition to the calendar.