Gramophone Magazine diary

As I write, I am sitting on a train travelling to York to play a recital tonight. I'm gazing out of the window at the English countryside flashing past and it strikes me that a musician's life is often one of almost perpetual motion . Indeed, sometimes the only point of stillness in the day comes for me when I sit with the cello either alone in a practice room or on stage. I have always appreciated those moments of calm, which should be a contradiction because of music's inevitable flow, but it's not. I even wonder if that's one of my roles as a performer in the 21st century; to help transport us all to that place.

I'm also thinking about the Kodaly solo cello sonata which I will be performing. I spent three happy days last November recording a selection of his works for cello,including the monumental sonata, and I believe it's a testament to the depth and imagination in his music that the piece is fascinating to come back to again now. What is it about the sonata that I  love so much? To begin with, the cellistic challenge is one which I relish. There is a word "Fiero" which can be translated as "the delight of meeting a challenge" and which sums up my feeling. To play the sonata well I have to be 'top of my game' physically and mentally and that's an energizing goal to have. Kodaly was himself an amateur cellist ( which is perhaps the most dangerous kind to be - assuming not always rightly -that the professional won't find his finger bending new techniques so difficult!). I imagine him spending many hours with his cello trying to recreate the evocative melodies,sounds, colours and stories he had discovered on his ethnomusicological travels; creating a world of zithers, cimbaloms , gypsy violins and voices on simply 4 strings of a lone cello. It seems an impossible task that only Bach had triumphed in but Kodaly's idealism pays off and the piece is much more than just a virtuosic firework. His vision for the sonata is wide reaching and conveys the love he felt for the culture he devoted his life's work to.

Kodaly was a musician I would like to have met. Many of his students (of which there were thousands over his lifetime) speak with sincere respect and affection for him. He was passionate to educate the next generation and seemed to derive as much pleasure and meaning in his life from that as from an international career and seemed to resist ambitiously pushing for worldwide recognition. I find this a sympathetic and inspiring model for a life well lived.

Which brings me back to my thoughts on a train in the 21st century.Would Kodaly feel so "Hungarian' after the word Nationalism took on such ugly overtones only 2 decades later, or now when nobody quite knows how to define their cultural roots any more? Are we all simply 'citizens of the world' in 2010? What is culture or tradition in this context? What would Kodaly do now and would he still feel the urge to unite communities and cultures through music?

I think about these things too and often ask myself what is my 'role' as a performer/cellist/teacher. As a performer I think what I touched on earlier is essential. I'm curious to experiment with the Where and the How of concerts. The only prerequisite is that of concentrated silence from an audience and surrounding but every other aspect is negotiable. I think I will always be curious in this way because I get such satisfaction from bringing new listeners as well as the faithful returning ones to the repertoire I believe in.  As a cellist and a teacher the answers to my questions are clearer. I come from a culture and tradition of cello playing which I cherish. I studied in Vienna with Heinrich Schiff whose teaching was deeply influenced by his teacher, Andre Navarra, one of the great exponents of the "French School" of cello playing. Steven Isserlis is another strong influence and in the many masterclasses I had with him he spoke often of Sandor Vegh's "European approach" to string playing. And perhaps the clearest cello line was drawn for me this year when I went for two weeks to Cape Cod to play for Bernard Greenhouse. He was one of only a few long term students of Pablo Casals and studied with him in Prades from 1946-48 after an invitation from the master to work as his "apprentice". Bernie told me many things that Casals had told him, about phrasing, about technique and even about how Bernie should behave with Casals' pretty young neices! And it strikes me that this is the true meaning of culture in every sense; a folk singer in Transylvania passing on a melody to Kodaly, who records it on his Edison phonograph, notates it and weaves it in to his Cello Sonata for generations of cellists to reinterpret and pass on. Perhaps culture is no longer defined by borders and even countries, but the tradition I belong to as a cellist is alive and kicking. The train keeps moving...