The development of Western music has been told by pianists, fiddlers and conductors. You could erase all the cello sonatas and concertos from the catalogs of Beethoven, Brahms and Haydn, and their reputations would hardly suffer. But you could also pick a different path through history, an all-cello itinerary that would feel rich, varied and complete. In that alternate telling, Zoltán Kodály, would emerge as one of the great poets of solitude. His Sonata for Solo Cello begins with the sort of impassioned rhetoric that suggests an urgent group endeavor — a revolution, perhaps. He sets the ear up for trumpets and timpani, but none arrive. There is only the cello, roaring in the dark.
Kodály's Lear-like cello is an orchestra of one, playing a half-hour piece of symphonic proportions. It dances, trembles, lapses into bleak meditations and beguiles the listener into perceiving illusory counterpoint, a mirage of reinforcements, a whole nonexistent philharmonic at its back. The sonata is a raving, one-sided conversation, unnerving but unutterably beautiful in its desire to conjure up company.