Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
July 22, 2018

This latest recital in the Utzon chamber music series was as much about the instrument as the brilliant cellist playing it. The 32-year-old Hungarian virtuoso István Várdai, making his Australian debut on the back of some nightmare flight cancellations which threatened to force organisers to pull the plug, performed a program of three diverse but neatly linked works. With the opening notes of György Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello – a three-note plucked sliding figure followed by a moody passage on the bass string – the remarkably rich and resonant sound of the Du Pré-Harrell Stradivarius became immediately apparent.

Only one of 64 cellos built by the Cremonese master, it dates from 1673 – 12 years before the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose fifth suite for cello formed the pivotal point of Várdai’s recital. The Strad’s story is worthy of an E. Annie Proulx novel. It was once owned by Jacqueline Du Pré, who sold it on to US maestro Lynn Harrell. He once left it in a New York taxicab but it was fortunately later returned intact by the driver. As Várdai said after playing the Bach, it was an instrument “made for eternity”. “It amazes me that it sounds so modern, so complex.” One of the reasons for its wonderful resonance is the double bass thickness of the poplar wood that Stradivari used for the back of the instrument.

Ligeti was a pupil of fellow Hungarian Zoltán Kodály, whose passionate folk-inflected Sonata completed the program. He was a cellist and he had studied his Bach and learned from it. This Bach link brought a satisfying continuity to Várdai’s program. If he was suffering from jetlag after his gruelling trip from the other side of the world it didn’t show as he charmed and amused the packed out audience with his remarks. The cellist first came to international notice in 2012 when he was awarded the Prix Montblanc, a prize given to the world’s most promising young musician. Since then his list of collaborators reads like a who’s who of chamber music – Gidon Kremer, András Schiff, Tabea Zimmermann and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet among them.

For the Bach suite Várdai’s natural style, impeccable intonation and beauty of line brought out all the playful nuances of the double gavottes and gigue and the simple measured elegance of the Sarabande. The Strad’s beefy bass was shown off in the portentous Prelude and Allemande while in the gallant gestures of the Courante Várdai exploited its full dynamic range.

Ligeti’s two-movement Sonata – a yearning Dialogo and a Paganini-like barnstorming Capriccio – was very much a tribute to his teacher Kodály and far more accessible than his later more experimental avant-garde works. He wrote it for a student he fancied but she not only didn’t reciprocate his feelings but also never even played the piece.

Béla Bartók paid tribute to his friend Kodály’s music by saying that although it wasn’t “modern” it nevertheless “says things that have never been uttered before”, showing that the tonal approach still had some legs left. The Sonata is a case in point with its passionate opening movement and moody middle movement where plucked bass strings underpin the simultaneous arching bowed lines. The final movement of variations on a folk theme challenges the cellist to the full, demanding double stopped trills, furious bowing and full pedal momentum, at times sounding like a gipsy cimbalom, at others almost like a full string section.

This is a heady goulash with spicy paprika and plenty of glasses of bull’s blood. Just the recipe for a chilly sunny afternoon with an artist from whom we shall be hearing a great deal more.


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