Tamás Zétényi KODÁLY & LIGETI - Sonatas for Cello Solo, LIGETI - Sonata for Viola Solo
An intense and highly sought-after cellist on the Hungarian classical, contemporary, and improvisation scenes, for his first solo disc Tamás Zétényi has selected some of the most important solo string instrument pieces of the twentieth century: this album features solo sonatas by Kodály and Ligeti. In three works by two Hungarian composers, we can trace how the solo string genre, founded by Bach, was suddenly revived in the twentieth century. Kodály’s grandiose cello sonata intones with the intimacy of a soliloquy, deploying folk-music inspiration and the new harmonic world of Impressionism alongside the Bachian prototypes.
Kodály was undoubtedly an influence on Ligeti, who however in his own cello sonata followed leaner structural principles and Bartókian models. Ligeti’s late work, the viola sonata, which summarizes his oeuvre and forges an alloy of new tonality and folk melodies of the Carpathian Basin, is here heard in Tamás Zétényi’s own transcription, released here with the consent and approval of Vera Ligeti, the composer’s widow and heir.
Tamás Zétényi - cello
About the album
Music Publisher: Universal Edition (1-3), Schott Music (4-11)
Recorded at BMC Studio, Budapest on 21 August, 2022 (4-11) and 18 September, 2022 (1-3)
Recorded, mixed and mastered by Viktor Szabó
Artwork: Anna Natter / Cinniature
Produced by László Gőz
Label manager: Tamás Bognár
Tamás Zétényi: KODÁLY & LIGETI Sonatas for Solo Cello, LIGETI Sonata for Viola Solo
The album is available in digital form at our retail partners
INSPIRATION AND CRAFTSMANSHIP IN THE CARPATHIAN BASIN
It is a remarkable coincidence that the three perhaps most significant pieces written in the twentieth century for a solo string instrument: Kodály’s Sonata for Solo Cello, Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, and Ligeti’s Sonata for Viola Solo, are all compositions by Hungarian composers.
Two explanations come to mind. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Carpathian Basin was home to a dozen or so ethnic groups, each with a rich tradition of folk music. This situation led to the emergence of a stratum of professional musicians, mainly Gypsies, who could satisfy the musical needs of all the different groups of the population. Though the Gypsies have their own traditional music, as instrumentalists they made a living from the market, hence they played the instruments and the music that was in demand – whether the music of Hungarians or other ethnic groups, or the art music of aristocratic courts; that is, they felt at home in both rural and urban environments, as well as among the nobility. What is more, the measure of expertise for Gypsy musicians living from the ‘entertainment industry’ of the time was not traditionalism but rather extra-traditional elements such as virtuoso left-hand technique on string instruments (e.g. artificial harmonics, double and triple stops). Many of them also learnt to read music in the process of becoming professional musicians. Their professional contests, the so-called bow duels, displayed virtuosity that was rightfully admired by Ferenc Liszt himself.
All in all, the praxis of Gypsy musicians included a mixture of historical and ethnic styles at a very high technical level. Though Bartók and Kodály proclaimed the primacy of vocal folk music, and were rather dismissive concerning certain parts of the repertoire of Gypsy musicians (e.g. folksy art songs), as regards the possibilities of string instruments, they had been exposed to this tradition in their formative years.
The other explanation is rooted in the fact that a sonata for a solo string instrument is one of the greatest challenges for a composer. The violin, the viola, and the cello are primarily melody instruments, where, owing to the anatomy of the hand, harmonies can only be created by a limited number of chords, or with compositional techniques that create polyphony in a latent manner.
The latter demands the utmost compositional expertise, especially in the case of a major piece.
The Academy of Music in Budapest, where Bartók, Kodály, and Ligeti studied, provided fairly conservative training, and the curriculum for composers placed great emphasis on different kinds of counterpoint and style exercises, thereby helping students master the craft of composition.
Kodály and modernism
The first golden age for string solo pieces was the Baroque period, when ricercars or even whole suites were written senza basso. J. S. Bach’s works of this type, especially the string fugues, representing the peak of polyphony, were a quantum leap compared to the former repertoire. These complex, elaborate pieces are cornerstones in the life of every string player.
Apart from a few exceptions (Reger’s solo suites and a piece by the young Sibelius), when Zoltán Kodály composed his Sonata, no concert piece had been written for cello solo after Bach’s suites for 200 years. The ‘non-concert’ solo pieces composed during this period were etudes or caprices in the Paganini paradigm, not intended to offer more, or anything other, than virtuosity stretching the limits of the instrument.
Kodály knew this repertoire very well, as he himself played the cello. Furthermore, the influential cello professor of his Alma Mater, the Budapest Academy of Music, was David Popper, whose etudes represent the most important collection of their kind, and – similarly to Bach’s suites – belong to the essential basic repertoire for cellists. Kodály drew all available lessons from these etudes, but ingenuously composed a piece which nevertheless speaks in his own voice. The solo cello is first person singular: “I, Kodály” appears on the scene. The language of his music synthesizes the three basic trends of Hungarian modernism: the inspiration of folklore, which is not a mere exotic ornament as was typical in Romanticism but defines the basic character of this composition; Neo-aspirations, including the Bachian genre of sonata for solo instrument, and the sarabande metre of the first movement; and the novel chord sequences of Impressionism, mixtures, modes, and whole tone scales. Kodály raised all this into a new dimension by using a technique known from Bach’s suites: scordatura, i.e. a tuning that differs from the normal tuning of the strings in fifths (lowering the two lower strings by a minor second). With incredible craftsmanship and instrumental invention, Kodály composed a thirty-minute tour de force which – if played with sufficient concision – does not for a moment give the impression of a mere patchwork of etudes. In fact, Kodály’s Sonata is just as much a quantum leap from the earlier repertoire as Bach’s Solo Suites were.
In Kodály's shadow – a work resurrected three times
György Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello has a remarkable history, as it rarely happens that a work is sunk, banned, or revoked three times, all this happening within 30 years.
While studying at the Academy of Music, Ligeti secretly fell in love with a fellow student, a cellist, Anna Virány – but as a timid young man, he dared not approach “Annush,” so he composed a solo piece for her. Unaware of the composer’s motivation, Anna Virány, perplexed, thanked him for it, and never performed it, so it might easily have disappeared for good. In 1953, however, Vera Dénes, a leading cellist of the period, asked Ligeti to compose a solo work for her. Ligeti expanded the piece written earlier, adding a virtuoso second movement, a Capriccio. As required by the cultural policy of that time, the composition had to be presented to a committee of the Society of Musicians (an organization established according to Soviet principles), which judged it to be too modern, and practically banned it. Thus it came near to oblivion for the second time.
The first movement, a love gift, portrays the conversation of a man and a woman, as the title Dialogo shows: again, it is the solo cello that speaks for the composer in the first person singular.
What kind of solo cello piece could be written after Kodály’s Sonata – at a time when the older maestro was the main authority in Hungarian musical life? Ligeti was undoubtedly under Kodály’s influence, as shown by the language of the first movement and its three-four pulse untypical of Hungarian folk music. However, the scales of the two pieces are radically different: a generation (and two world wars) later, Ligeti’s compositional economy is quite different to Kodály’s grandiose, transcendental approach incorporating the lessons of the nineteenth century.
The second movement departs even more strikingly from the Kodály model, and uses a tonal system that is clearly Bartókian. Instead of the parallel sixths so typical of Kodály and Popper, Ligeti mainly uses parallel fifths, which are difficult to accomplish on the cello. His points of reference are Paganini’s caprices and Bach’s prestos rather than Popper’s etudes. The spareness of the composition, the cold, metallic tone, so different from Kodály’s, is even more obvious here.
As is well-known, Ligeti emigrated to the west in 1956, and soon had access to headquarters of Modernism such as the electronic studio in Cologne and the Darmstadt Summer Courses, where he became a leading figure of the avant-garde, as the “exotic alien” rejecting all traditions. His earlier pieces composed in Hungary in the Kodály–Bartók tradition did not match his new style and image, hence Ligeti forbade them to be either published or performed for 20 years. So the third time, it was the composer himself who tried to withhold the Sonata for Solo Cello from the audience.
The postmodern trends of the 1970s, however, did not fail to influence him, and as his relation to his past changed, he slowly started allowing the publication of his early works. As Wolfgang Boettcher, a former teacher of mine told me, he first gave the manuscript of the Cello Sonata to a few cellists important to him, asking for their opinions, and despite the sweepingly enthusiastic reactions, he hesitated for a long time before publishing it. Eventually, it appeared in 1990, and it immediately became one of the most popular solo works, and since then, it has been a regular requirement at music competitions, and part of the repertoire of practically all cellists. Anna Virány must have heard about the new life of the composition dedicated to her. I learnt from Péter Halász that she emigrated to Switzerland in 1949, where she became a respected cellist under the name Anna Marton, and participated in the premiere performance of such pieces as Sándor Veress’ String Trio.
Nostalgia after a homeland not existing any more
After the premiere of his opera Le grand macabre, György Ligeti experienced a creative crisis that lasted for almost four years. The two short pieces composed during this time, Hungarian Rock and Passacaglia Ungherese, already indicated the direction of the way out. His Horn Trio, the first significant composition completed in the new period, marking his postmodern turn, represented both a turning away from the avant-garde, and a rediscovery of folk music and the classical musical tradition – and of his own past and his memories. However, this nostalgia, including reminiscences of his childhood in Transylvania, of his student years in Kolozsvár (Cluj) and Budapest, and of 1956, is deeply reflective because of its ambivalence. Life was not easy for Ligeti as a Hungarian in Romania and as a Jew in the region temporarily reannexed to Hungary, and it was further darkened by two brutal dictatorships.
The Sonata for Viola Solo, composed in 1991–1994, Ligeti’s first solo piece for a string instrument since his Sonata for Solo Cello, is related to the cello sonata in the same way his late piano etudes are related to Musica ricercata, which he composed when he was still in Hungary. In both cases, the early piece already contains all the important ideas, but still lacks some of the brilliant technique and the cache of influences Ligeti gathered and synthesized throughout his life time. The Solo Sonata, a great late summary, is far from being an avant-garde composition, but Ligeti invented a new kind of functional tonality that is neither twelve-tone nor traditional, and which is determined by the open strings of the viola. The cello arrangement is made possible by the fact that the cello has the same strings an octave lower.
Ligeti, who himself collected folk music in Romania in the 1950s, included in the sonata two movements based on the hora lungă. The hora lungă, sung and played on the tilinkó (a pipe without holes), was also a great experience for Bartók when he was collecting folk music in Máramarossziget (Sighetu Marmației) in 1913. The first movement is to be played on the C string, which Ligeti said had an “acerbic, dense, somewhat hoarse quality, with an aftertaste of wood, soil and tannin.” The acoustic scale with its “out-of-tune” intervals evokes the most up-to-date spectral music, and also conveys an archaic atmosphere; this is the music of Ádám Bodor’s Sinistra Zone.
The title of the third movement was originally “Fragmente zwei horei lungi”. The melody, with its alternating 5/8 and 7/8-os pulse, invoking Sándor Veress’ Sonata for Solo Violin, is transformed in the course of the movement in a way that in the Bartók literature is referred to as mistuning. Ligeti, however, said that he was wringing or wrenching the tune; that is why the title of the movement is Facsar (wrench). Unlike in the first movement, the tune, a cantus firmus, appears first solo as an air, then it is enriched with more and more voices until it soars like a chorale. The sounds show the impact of Bartók’s polymodal chromaticism, whereas the dedication is to the memory of Sándor Veress – as if Ligeti were commemorating in this movement his years at the Budapest Academy of Music.
The second and fourth movements give the impression of intermezzos. Loop is a series of repeats of a scale consisting of 45 double-stops in a Machautian compositional technique in an increasingly condensed metre, whirling faster and faster, but its pulsation is supposed to recall the swing-like ease of jazz violin playing. Despite the mensural compositional technique, the quasi-tonality determined by the open strings, and the jazzy tone, the movement is constructed in such a way that the scale and rhythm occasionally have the impact of folk music.
The fourth movement, Prestissimo con sordino, evokes a movement of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4, and not only in its title: it is also an uninterrupted scurrying, with occasional bursting accents. The double-stop accents always containing an open string create an M. C. Escher-like illusory pattern as they stand out from the underlying texture, which is basically a variant of the asymmetric aksak rhythm also present in other movements of the composition.
In Ligeti‘s late compositions laments have a central role, so much so that some musicologists recognize laments as a key element of the whole oeuvre. In his monograph Márton Kerékfy calls them “symbols of mourning, loss beyond recovery, a perished home existing only as a memory”. In the fifth movement, a lowering melody moving in intervals of the second and the seventh alternates with a chorale-line tune, at first the one shouting fortissimo with savage, barbaric pain, and the other sounding pianissimo from far away – as if the individual’s pain were answered by the collective wisdom of the community. The way the two kinds of material gradually merge through a series of metamorphoses is a remarkable feat of composition, and the resignation of the individual, his acquiescence to the immutable, is finally achieved.
The last movement, the Chaconne chromatique, does not follow the Bachian pattern; it is a wild, boisterous dance, corresponding to the original meaning of word chaconne. The chromatically descending melody is heard in a chaconne rhythm, where the second beat can also be stressed occasionally, as in a sarabande. The number of voices gradually increases, the rhythm becomes increasingly denser, the dynamic grows to ffffff, and at the climax, it suddenly shifts to pianissimo – with a gesture so typical of Ligeti. The basic tune of the movement appears here as a material moving at two speeds, until the music smooths out into a coda of ethereal beauty, with a chorale sounding “from far away”. The whole piece appears to dissolve here. This passage makes reference to the beginning of the movement, but is not identical with it thematically: it consists mainly of major and seventh chords but it is not tonal; it is familiar and yet inscrutable. One particularly moving moment of this otherwordly coda is when a chord is suddenly highlighted with the performance instruction con espressione, after which the composer immediately returns with a diminuendo to a pp, da lontano mood. With this flash of a gesture Ligeti recalls an element of the cello sonata written for Anna Virány in 1948. He has come full circle.
Like the other two works on the CD, this solo composition is the composer’s monologue. This is what motivates the personal, emotional tone, what makes the piece perhaps Ligeti’s most personal work. After using Sub-Saharan, Caribbean and various other kinds of traditional musical material, he returns home to the Carpathian Basin, just as he returns to the musical memories of his student years. The composition is seemingly a combination of a dozen miscellaneous elements, styles, and influences, but, similarly to Kodály, with his superb compositional mastery Ligeti creates a unique synthesis of them which never gives the impression of elements checked off on a list or in a mosaic, and which always sounds idiomatic on the instrument.
György Ligeti found his way home – even if it was to a home that by then existed only in his imagination.
My sincere gratitude towards Vera Ligeti for allowing my transcription to be made public.
Tamás Zétényi is an active member of the Hungarian music scene, both as the cellist of the Classicus Quartet and an adjunct professor at the Széchenyi University Győr.
He plays dozens of concerts a year as a founding member of Classicus Ensemble, of Classicus Quartet and of Trio Passacaglia.
Since 2020 he has regularly appeared with jazz guitarist Gábor Gadó, and he recorded an album as a member of the Gábor Gadó – Veronika Harcsa Sextet at BMC Records.
Tamás Zétényi also regularly performs as a soloist. He has played solo concerts in several countries of Europe and in the USA. As a dedicated performer of new music he has collaborated with a number of composers, playing dozens of first performances each year.
He considers György Kurtág as his most important source of inspiration, and Péter Tornyai’s seventy-minute piece for solo cello and male choir, Dixit, as his most important commission.
A transcription for cello of J. S. Bach’s BWV 997 Lute Suite by Marcell Dargay and Tamás Zétényi was published by EMB in 2022. His transcriptions of Mozart’s K. 439b Divertimenti for three cellos is due to appear in 2023.
He has studied in Budapest and at Bard College and defended his doctoral thesis on the late chamber music of Liszt at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest.