Zoltán Kodály - Sonate opus 8 pour violoncelle seul Maurice Ravel - Sonate pour violon et violoncelle Johan Halvorsen - Passacaglia en sol mineur


Zoltán Kodály
Sonata Opus 8 for solo violoncello
Maurice Ravel
Sonata for violin and violoncello 
Johan Halvorsen
Passacaglia for violin and violoncello
free adaptation of Georg Friedrich Haendel's Passacaglia 

Christoph Henkel 
Gérard Poulet 

"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°137 
"un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama Hors-série 1990


Zoltán Kodály
Sonata for solo violoncello opus 8 (1915)

Kodály played the violin, the viola and the piano, but his favourite instrument was the violoncello. He taught himself how to play it when he was a student in Nagyszombat (today Trnava, Slovakia). In some six chamber pieces, he achieved a striking synthesis of the principles developed by Bach, the forms passed down by the masters of the Viennese school, the harmonic experiments of the romantic period and the newly rediscovered lilt of the traditional folk music combining gypsy instrumentation with genuine folk song.

The present sonata in three movements, with the final two interconnected, reveals a highly individual use of the sonata form. In order to give maximum freedom to the melodic material employed Kodály makes use of the sonata form merely as a guide for unconstrained phrasing that unfolds with the naturalness of improvisation. The bars separating the measures in the score are not apparent to the listener, and the performer uses them solely as reference points in a musical progression which is surprisingly untrammelled. Form is used to give a sense of economy and rigour to the piece, and a concurrent striving for unity is evident in the repeats. When a melodic cluster, measure or phrase is repeated, it undergoes a metamorphosis in terms of form, rhythm or tone colour (harmonic treatment). These can be expanded in recitativo form (in the slow adagio movement, the repeat of the theme in 6/8 time is taken twice as slowly). Contracted or given a different rhythm and thus different "strong" notes, ultimately occurring in a different key (or mode). Through these devices, Kodály manages to reconstitute one of the most important underlying principles of folk music : the concept of continuous variation. The immense tapestry making up Opus 8 is constructed from a single theme.

The result is music combining freedom of form, flexibility of phrasing, clarity of construction and thematic unify : The sonata's harmonic structure exhibits the same basic approach. The tonic key of B minor, involving a scordatura chord (the bass strings are lowered by a hall-tone, producing the chord B-F#-D-A), serves as the tonic reference to which the piece repeatedly returns. Containing modal inflexions (from the Phrygian mode, primarily) that foster the construction of numerous polytonal chords, the harmonic language employed may appear to make extremely free with the tonal order. And yet, it is the tonal order that decisively underlies the whole. The impression of improvisation and freedom projected by the work lies in the technical virtuosity and novelty Kodály has invented for the violoncello. The instrument is used like a harp, a cymbalo; it is made to sound like bagpipes or like a gypsy band playing their verbunkos music ... Every technical trick imaginable is called into play : double and triple chords, different methods of using the strings ("on the bridge","on the wood", "on the frets", harmonically, left-hand pizzicati, tremolos, trill, open chords), but this is not virtuosity for its own sake. The effect being sought (and successfully achieved) is to recreate the techniques used on old instruments (cymbalo, zither, pipe, etc.), to convey the illusion of polyphony, and to take maximum advantage of tone colour; in short, to combine (as Bach did in his "Sarabandes") the sophisticated with the folk.

The first movement of the sonata, allegro maestoso ma appassionato in 3/4 time, is an epic, lyric recitativo. Written in sonata form it presents a magnificent progression in which all the chords relate to the tonic (B), while in the repeat section they relate to the dominant (F#). A complete understanding of the work requires intimate knowledge both of Bach's Suites, and of modern compositional techniques, as shown in the three first measures, in which the opening chords immediately impose, risoluto, a tension maintained during nine whole minutes of alternating appassionato recitativos, fluid reveries on the A chord, and, finally, a sequence of two repeats in tempo primo, the first mounting to an initial climax in a register more often associated with the flute or the violin than with the violoncello, and the second to a sforzando-fortissimo passage immediately followed by a pianissimo one underscoring the tonal and dynamic contrasts. The movement concludes on the same two chords that were used in the introduction.

The adagio (con gran'espressione) in 6/8 time appears to soar above the constraints of form. The violoncello sings in a mood that is successively pensive and pastoral (in an alternation of soothing simple or double ternary rhythms in 6/8 and 9/8 time), and whimsical. Kodály was strongly influenced by Richard Strauss' Don Quixote, and in the con moto section (with its fierce forte) we have unpredictable, capricious dance rhythms in a series of triplets and quintuplets marked 12/8. This is a dazzling display of fireworks on the part of the violoncello, one made up of tremolos and of swift arpeggios which nonetheless return to a second exposition of the theme, now transformed beyond all recognition by hammering gypsy cymbalo accents. Kodály manipulates the B-flat major tonic with its relative major C minor. The two cadences, in addition to their Magyar atmosphere, also use the ambiguity of the G-E-flat duo, resolving it in the key of B.

The allegro molto vivace finale (in 2/4 time) combines the orthodoxy of the sonata form and the rhapsodic freedom of a feverish rondo. Dotted eighth notes are used to introduce the "theme", which sounds more like an air for bagpipes than a ritournelle for strings. The rhythm then accelerates with a sixteenth-note passage. The melodic line is by turns firm (fermata on the bass F) and explosively capricious, using pizzicati and variable dance rhythms for an effect that is at once festive and trancelike. The first fifteen measures of this "bagpipe" theme continue to influence the succeeding transformations. Entries in F major give new life to the harmonic mood, bringing with them a repeat of the initial fifteen-measure theme in the original tonic of B, and in a burst of arpeggios. A major transitional section, making broad use of tremolos and trills increasing in intensity from pianissimo to fortissimo, prepares the abbreviated recapitulation prior to the concluding coda, a series of arpeggios in which the key of C takes over for the first time from the key of B. These three final measures demand from the performer a kind of virtuosity in the treble key (triple forte) which stuns all non-Hungarian cellists who have ever tried it.

This masterful score is dedicated to Jenö Kerpely, who gave the premiere performance on 7 May 1918 during the second of a series of concerts devoted solely to works by Kodály. The Viennese premiere took place on 20 June 1920, with Kerpely again performing, this time at a concert sponsored by an association founded by Arnold Schönberg. The piece again produced a sensation when it was performed at the SIMC (International Society for Contemporary Music) on 7 August 1923.

Maurice Ravel
Sonata for violin and violoncello (1921)

The first movement of Ravel's Sonate en Duo was written for Le Tombeau de Debussy, a ten-composer tribute to the author of Pélléas commissioned by the Revue Musicale for its December 1920 issue. Like Strawinsky, Ravel enjoyed composing on the basis of a stated theme and a specific form. Insofar as writing six sonatas in the Debussy mould is possible, does it also seem reasonable to compose one for violin and violoncello in the late master's style? André Suarès states (1) that Debussy composed primarily in the major, and Ravel in the minor. This appears to be oversimplified. The real difference is that Ravel followed Satie's example, making renewed use of the ancient Gregorian modes, and eschewing the academic distinction between major and minor. The Sonate en Duo oscillates between two modes for the key of A, controlled by a shifting mediating arpeggio contained in the initial theme, which is minor when it rises, major when it falls.

Ravel subsequently decided to add three more movements free of conventional "sonata" form. After working for eighteen months, the whole became, in February 1921, the Sonata for violin and violoncello. This masterpiece contains four freely stated themes which do not develop formally, but which do intensify dramatically. The initial allegro introduces skilful contrapuntal figures in thirds and octaves, with none of the beguiling affectations found in the more celebrated pages from the pen of the man responsible for Daphnis and Chloé. José Bruyr describes this sonata as "wrapped in a proud counterpoint that seems to burn with some dark fire". The composer himself notes, in his "Esquisse autobiographique" that the piece represents "a turning point in the development of my career. It is extremely spare, the absence of harmonic charm being especially marked in the progression of the melody". The two themes of the allegro give the movement a kind of cyclic unity, and demonstrate the affinity Ravel sought both with Strawinsky and with the completed sonatas of Debussy. The counterpoint is often in two different keys, while in other spots passages featuring double bowing and arpeggios are reminiscent of Kodály's Duo opus 7 and Dohnanyi's Serenade in Trio opus 12 in terms of both tone and volume.

The initial movement is moderate in tempo, and built on four thematic figures, two of which will serve as leitmotifs throughout the work. The first of these themes appears in the violoncello part, on the A string, in an unusual tessitura which is as disconcerting as are the series of narrow intervals that overlap while creating an electrifying harmonic tension. The second theme is characterized by infrequently used intervals such as sevenths. The third manipulates the rhythm, the syncopation conveying the impression of perpetual movement. The fourth theme appears to accelerate the melodic progression while also broadening the tonal and sonic range through double and triple bowing. The "French" character of this material seems strangely and disconcertingly to have been borrowed (for the first theme) from a lullaby, repeated eight times by the violin, and the counter-theme that follows has the misleading ingenuity of the "Masque" from the "Petit Poucet" section of "Ma Mère l'Oye". The third motif is introduced in even notes by the violin, and the last, apparently in B minor, may be taken from an old 18th French rondo. The counterpoint leaps back and forth between the two voices, but the four apparently unconnected themes (except by their common dancelike rhythms) are left undeveloped. A short repeat leads up to a quiet, essentially modal coda coming after the C and the C# have affirmed their original incompatibility.

The scherzo, marked très vif, is a battle between the two instruments. The introductory theme is actually the basic outline of the initial theme in the allegro, this time played pizzicato by each of the two instruments in turn. Next come a series of harsh, scraped notes in rapid triplets. The second theme, as in the preceding movement, appears to have been borrowed from a French folk round dance. It is played pizzicato on the violin, with the violoncello accompanying with a series of arpeggios in another key. The introduction closes with the two parts contrasted in a series of wide, fiercely joined chords. The development section recalls "l'Enfant et les Sortilèges" with its meowing, snarling, angry "cat music". A curious pizzicati background arrests this seemingly unfounded commotion. There follows a pseudo-development of the preceding melodic figures in a rapid 6/8 presto, during which the "cat music" turns into a folk song. The pervasive beat weakens, giving place to a brief harmonic pause introducing a new expository section that pirouettes off the scene with an interrogative and whimsical glissando.

The slow movement (Lent) re-introduces, with a violoncello recitativo, the expressionism of the underlying modal line. The atmosphere is a somber one, with the same deep blue hue that shimmers in the depths of the Passacaglia from the Trio in A minor. The violin plays in its lowest register, accompanying the sinuous, timeless line of the modal melodic theme. The tension is increased with the introduction of the second theme, by the violoncello, played in the treble register and progressing in anguished sevenths. An emotional, dissonant climax is suddenly reached. The tension gradually lessens with the partial re-exposition of the first sinuous line, and in the coda the vertiginous sevenths become relatively tranquil figures sliding towards the reassuring ornamental fifths, with the somber bass movement subsiding in fourths.

The final (vif avec entrain) starts off with an almost wilfully provocative folk "brio", as if these facile, empty figures could be made interesting solely through their rhythmic invention, as Bartók was to prove in his two Sonatas for violin composed at the same time. But Ravel's furores are less unexpected, and they have more staying power. Here, the frenzy combines with the statement of the first theme is a transfiguration of a figure borrowed from the initial allegro played by the violoncello, which catapults it into the treble register. The second figure comes in against the beat, projected by a violoncello trill. The final melodic figure is played in F# with the end of the violoncello bow. The first two melodic ideas then combine to create their own dynamic, concluding in a masterful stretto. Just as the progression of the polyphonic movement threatens to make the tension unbearable, and unplayable, the luxuriant burst of sound resigns its position to an F major chord liberating it from the spell.

This score received a cool reception at its premiere in the Salle Pleyel (Paris) on 6 April 1922, performed by Hélène Jourdan-Morhange and Maurice Maréchal. The critics sought in vain for the words to describe their contempt in response to music they considered disagreeable, dry, nervous, rebarbative, unbalanced and shrill. The performers themselves were unconvinced that this "tour de force" had any useful purpose to serve. The violinist asked why he (the composer) "had given a flute part to the violoncello and a percussion part to the violin". The final paradox of this duo written "for the love of its difficulty" is that, behind the dissonances and the instrumental doubling, there does show through the image of the poet who created "l'Enfant et les Sortilèges", and the anguished soul of the Concerto for left hand. The piece's fiendish virtuosity, its icy limpidity, biting attacks, tonal aggressiveness and bi or polytonic leaps, all of these "departures" formed an explosive cocktail. But one bound to attract the young composers attracted by Strawinsky, and especially those belonging to the "Group of Six" (2) who were reacting against "the mists of Debussy and the preciosity of Ravel". This is a sonata that for too long languished unappreciated. For its true significance, as well as its tonal breadth, to be understood, the listener must go beyond its superficial "gaiety" and discover its inner dynamic, a wilfully autonomous one, to realize the extent of the composer's triumph, not as a mere acrobat in music, but as a genuinely creative spirit who with a single Matisse·like stroke rendered force, perspective, colour and ... dizzying vertigo.

(1) cf. "Pour Ravel" in Revue Musicale, December 1938, page 7.
(2) Georges Auric (1899-1983), Louis Durey (1888-1979), Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983).

Johan Halvorsen
Passacaglia in G minor for violin and violoncello
free adaptation of Georg Friedrich Haendel's Passacaglia

Haendel Suites generally contain three to seven pieces, although those in the major 1720 collection contain four to six. The Seventh Suite in G minor is both the most extensively developed and the richest in this series. The mood is elevated and impassioned, giving the impression that it might be the material for overtures and incidental music in some Theatre of the imagination. The Suite contains six pieces and starts off with a grandiose overture. Next come an andante, allegro, sarabande and gigue. The gigue is in the 12/8, swift-paced, dancelike Italian style. The final piece is a surprise Haendel held in reserve. Its scope is vast and completely unconnected to the traditional dance pieces. This Passacaglia, fifteen variations on a four-note theme, is especially interesting because of its 4/4 time, and because it projects the same breadth and solemnity as the Overture.

Two centuries after it was composed, Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935), Edward Grieg's son-in-law, published a transcription for violin and voila (or violoncello) of this Passacaglia. Himself a composer, conductor and violinist, Halvorsen was better known for his famous "Entrance of the Boyards" march than for his three symphonies or even his 1915 Norwegian Dances for violin and orchestra. His transcription of this vast sixty-four-measure passacaglia is a very free one. Although he followed the first ten four-measure variations closely, he improvised with considerable warmth and invention when it came to the last five, adding thirty-four measures to the original. Since then, his transcription has remained in the repertoire of many violinists and their partners, including Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky in the past, and Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerkman (playing viola) today. Although die-hard purists may prefer the masterly progression of the original suite, this duo "freely adapted from Haendel" has a beauty and majesty all its own, the same romantic splendour we find in Violin pieces by Louis Spohr or Max Bruch.

Texts After Pierre-Emile Barbier originals

Writer's note : The passages quoted from the Sonata Opus 8 by Zoltán Kodály are taken primarily from "Guide de la Musique de Chambre" by the same author, Editions Fayard, Paris 1989.

Christoph Henkel & Gérard Poulet

Christoph Henkel was born in Germany in 1946. He received his first cello lessons when he was six years old. A first prize winner in the Young Musicians Competition, he obtained a scholarship to study in the United States with the great János Starker.

In 1971 he held a teaching position at the University of Illinois, and since 1973 has served as professor at the School of Music in Freiburg im Breisgau.

Like Gérard Poulet, he has played all over the world with the best orchestras and conductors. His instrument is a large Goffriller formerly owned by conductor Sir John Barbirolli (who began his career as a cellist) and, subsequently, by Joseph Schüster.


Zoltán Kodály
Sonate opus 8 pour violoncelle
à Eugène de Kerpely

Allegro maestoso ma appassionato
Allegro molto vivace

Maurice Ravel
Sonate pour violon et violoncelle
à la mémoire de Claude Debussy

Très vif
Vif, avec entrain

Johan Halvorsen
Passacaille en sol mineur pour violon et violoncelle
librement adaptée d'après Georg Friedrich Haendel


"Chocdu Monde de la Musique n°137 :

En l'espace de dix ans à peine (1908-1918) et au seuil d'une première maturité, Zoltán Kodály a écrit coup sur coup deux quatuors à cordes, une sérénade pour trio à cordes, une sonate pour violoncelle et piano, un duo pour violon et violoncelle et une sonate pour violoncelle seul. Géniale floraison de chefs-d'œuvre qui ont suffi à imposer sur le plan international une puissante personnalité ne devant rien à personne et qui auraient pu faire de Kodály l'égal de Bartók, Schöenberg ou Stravinsky si, dès 1923, l'année du Psalmus Hungaricus, il n'avait exploré la voix et les grands ensembles, démontrant un attachement exclusif au folklore, aux modes archaïsants et des ambitions malheureusement différentes.
Après un premier enregistrement - magistral - consacré à Bartók et à Kodály, Christoph Henkel et Gérard Poulet se retrouvent dans l'étonnante 
Sonate (1921) de Maurice Ravel, hommage à Debussy d'une densité peu commune. On ne sait qu'admirer le plus, de la plénitude très habitée de l'archet de Gérard Poulet ou des élans âpres, concentrés, à la fois libres et rigoureux du violoncelliste allemand. La Passacaille en sol mineur de Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935), gendre d'Edvard Grieg, n'est guère significative, ce qui n'est évidemment pas le cas d'une exemplaire Sonate Opus 8 de Kodály, parcours d'une frémissante gravité, presque digne des légendaires versions Starker, où la personnalité de Christoph Henkel, aussi vigilant envers la structure d'ensemble qu'envers le détail, s'épanouit sans cesser d'interroger l'économie d'une telle écriture. - Patrick Szersnovicz
Technique : 9/10.

"un événement exceptionnelde Télérama Hors-série :

Les qualités requises pour triompher de la Sonate de Kodály sont d'une telle diversité que cette rubrique, si on les énumérait, n'y suffirait pas. La toute première d'entre elle, est peut-être cette manière "d'accrocher" d'emblée l'auditeur par un sentiment d'improvisation. L'œuvre de - 1915! - paraît ainsi naître sous nos yeux... ébahis.
Pour se faire cithare, cymbalum, chalumeau, le violoncelle de Kodály se plie en deux, se met en quatre, accomplit d'inimaginables prouesses techniques.
Seul un Ravel pouvait se montrer aussi diabolique. Sa 
Sonate pour violon et violoncelle fit dire à ses premiers interprètes qu'ils ne comprenaient pas pourquoi "il (Ravel) faisait jouer de la flûte au violoncelle et du tambour par le piano." Cela se passait en l'an de grâce 1922 et notre imagination, depuis, s'est quelque peu élargie. Le défi ravelien n'a plus rien de choquant; seule demeure son obsession d'aller plus loin, toujours plus loin, que les barrières disparaissent une bonne fois pour toutes.
Le tandem Henkel - Poulet, inutile de le préciser, fait des étincelles. L'éditeur parle de leur joie de jouer ensemble; il faudrait être sourd pour ne pas s'en rendre compte...
 - Paul Meunier
Technique : 5T.
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