Edmund Kurtz: Cello Sonatas of Prokofiev, Chopin, Kodaly – DOREMI

by | Mar 20, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

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Edmund Kurtz, Cello = PROKOFIEV: Sonata in C Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 119; CHOPIN: Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor, Op. 65; KODALY: Unaccompanied Sonata for Cello, Op. 8 – Edmund Kurtz. cello/ Artur Balsam. piano – DOREMI DHR-8109 (9/17/21) (76:20) [www.doremi.com]*****:

I can proudly claim to have had an influence in the creation of this release from Jacob Harnoy’s DOREMI label: aware of the dearth of recorded materials on Russian cello virtuoso Edmund Kurtz (1908-2004), I entreated Harnoy to transfer for me, personally for my radio broadcast over KZSU-FM, Stanford, the 1949/1950 Lps on RCA (Chopin, LM 19) and Columbia (Kodaly and Prokofiev, ML 4867) that neither company had reissued, despite the obvious acclaim accorded the restoration of the Rachmaninoff G Minor Sonata with William Kapell as part of the Kapell Edition on RCA. After some work and further consideration, Harnoy decided to add his creation to his label’s catalogue, to the benefit of all who cherish elegant musicianship. 

Portrait Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev,
circa 1918

Kurtz, an eminent pupil of Julius Klengel, opens with the 1950 Sonata by Sergei Prokofiev, a work that survived its “formalist” denunciation by the Zhdanov Decree in the Soviet Union’s attempt to suppress intellectual culture in the arts. Kurtz and master collaborator Artur Balsam (1908-1994) deliver to the music’s three movements an elegant combination of lyricism, drama, and wit. Kurtz’s low register immediately ingratiates us, as do Balsam’s acerbic staccatos in the course of the first movement’s sonata form, the second’s scherzo, and the rondo of the finale, Allegro, ma non troppo. A sense of loving duet evolves in movement one, Allegro grave, in which Balsam plays also in the keyboard’s low register, con esperssione drammatico. For all of the canny musing and playful, pizzicati coyness of the Scherzo (Moderato), the middle section Trio expands to a soaring sense of melodic liberation. The last movement proceeds in a carefree, breezy manner suggestive more of Poulenc than the heavy, Russian soul, at least until the broad secondary episode. Prokofiev, in an abridged cyclic maneuver, brings back the opening material of movement one for a grand coda apotheosis, now stated in glorious, epic colors.

Portrait of Chopin

Chopin

The 1848 Chopin Sonata in G Minor appeared as the result of Chopin’s consultations with virtuoso Auguste Franchomme, who oversaw the idiomatic approach to his chosen instrument. Chopin, in his late style, integrates long, ingratiating melodies within sonata form and contrapuntal textures. The keyboard still maintains its own authority to runs and scalar passages, both declaiming and singing in harmony with the cello in the admittedly ardent secondary theme in the grandly developed movement one, Allegro moderato. The minor mode Scherzo projects a playful velocity more akin to Mendelssohn, though the interior waltz section is pure Chopin ballroom charm, the cello over keyboard arpeggios. The Largo, deceptively terse at 27 measures, enjoys a simple melodic contour totally reminiscent of a nocturne. The tune, in steady eighths, achieves with Kurtz and Balsam a mesmerizing beauty and studied serenity that have been denied us since this 10” RCA Lp went out of print. Dotted rhythms set against triplets set the tone for the Finale: Allegro, a rondo of chromatic and dramatic complexity. The knotty labyrinth of Chopin’s rhythmic pulses prove typical of hid late style, of which his wonderful Nocturnes, Op. 62 and the Op. 63 Mazurkas form an integral part. Kurtz and Balsam establish a lively, fervent propulsion that explodes in a sunny coda in the tonic major.

After the historic milestone of Bach solo suites for cello, Zoltan Kodaly’s 1915 Solo Sonata, whose main feature, besides its exploitation of Hungarian folk style and modalities, lies in its scordatura tuning, lowering the C and G strings a semitone to produce in the open strings a B Minor 7th chord. Both the timbre of the instrument changes, and Kurtz’s left hand must adjust its configured tensions while the bow hand must deal with lowered strings. Kurtz introduces and embellishes the first movement’s materials, Allegro maestoso ma appassioato, that remain virtually identical throughout. The vibrant colors of the movement derive from Kodaly’s juxtaposition of pentatonic scales with a fluid, modal harmonic progress that alternates B in major and minor, and later, in the recapitulation, does the same for F-sharp. 

Portrait Kodály Zoltán 1930s

Zoltán Kodály, 1930s

The second movement serves as vehicle for Kurtz’s singing tone and fluent sense of line, given that this Adagio con grand espessione takes its cue from Hungarian folk songs. One style of folk song, parlando-rubato, proves to be free in its rhythmic pulse, of set as a kind of lament. The broad ternary structure exploits the E-C# interval at key points, using the harmonic ambiguity as a source of emotional strain and tension. Two themes in the bass envelop a soprano theme, and Kodaly intensifies the range of emotion thorough sustained pedal (on B), pizzicatos, ambivalent harmonic centers, and active, rhythmic variety. Kurtz plays sighing phrases and ascending lines that seem to collapse from physical exhaustion.

In a sense, the expansive meditations deceive us, since the last movement, Allegro molto vivace, will explode upon the scene with lusty Hungarian dance, verbunkos motifs that test the fortitude and dexterity of the performer. Gypsy impulses, dotted rhythms, high harmonics, and melodic augmented seconds dominate the music’s progress. The opening 8 measures dictate the course of this sonata form movement, though its emotional tenor and modal sonorities belie its classical obligations. Variations, improvisations, pentatonic major and minor modes, thumping motor effects, and a decided children’s sensibility permeate its gaudy, striking effects, often blistering in intensity. Kurtz’s application of glissando pizzicato passagework provides an object lesson in itself. No less impressive, his saltato and ricochet passages announce a consummate master of the instrument who has followed, with virtuosic splendor the demands of the creator. Share these moments with me. And may various, untapped sources reveal more of the Edmund Kurtz legacy.

—Gary Lemco