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Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Theatre Overture [15.00]
Concerto for Orchestra Allegro risoluto - Largo - Tempo primo - Largo - Tempo primo, [15.59]
Dances of Marosszek Maestoso, poco rubato - Con moto - Tempo primo, poco piu largo - Moderato - Tempo primo - Vivace - Tempo primo - Allegro con brio [13.11]
Symphony in C major Allegro +Andante moderato +Vivo [26.44]
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
Recorded at Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 9 February 1999 (Dances of Marosszek) and 27-28 October 1998 (other works)
CHANDOS CHAN 9811 [71.18]


I once asked a friend from Hungary what music from her homeland she would recommend. She suggested Bela Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, his Piano Concerto No. 3, and his Violin Concerto No. 2. She also suggested Kodály's Hary Janos Suite, and his Dances of Galanta.

Katalin has never steered me wrong and I've read with pleasure the Hungarian novels she's tossed in my path. But -- are you listening, Katalin? -- I wonder if the short list of essential Hungarian music ought to be expanded at least enough to include the Kodály Symphony.

The problem is that people like myself with no knowledge of Hungarian music often enjoy Kodály pieces like the Peacock Variations but might have no idea that Kodály also wrote a symphony. I first learned of it in one of Rob Barnett’s reviews of a Braga Santos symphony. When I took two music guides off my shelf to look at the Kodály sections, I discovered what the problem was. One of the guides made no mention of the Symphony at all. The other one gave it a single paragraph.

Why should it be so neglected, I wonder, when the work is so rich in what we turn to, say, Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches for? To my mind all of Kodály’s music seems to be about explaining what the Hungarians are doing in the heart of Europe - a horse people from the east driven like a wedge in among all those alien Indo-Europeans. It makes for good listening – and good reading, incidentally. It’s sometimes a theme in Hungarian writing.

"We live in the middle of Europe like a foundling, like an abandoned illegitimate child," the great Hungarian writer Zsigmond Moricz has a character say in his novel, Be Faithful unto Death (here translated by Stephen Vizinczey). "Hungary was always the last battleground. It was the bastion where the Asiatic hordes had to stop. Isn’t that amazing, that the Hungarians should have come here from the east to protect the west from the easterners? We bled away at that, fighting our eastern relatives to defend the alien westerners who have remained strangers through a thousand years …"

Fortunately, Hungarian music lets western ears edge a bit closer to that eastern strangeness in works like the Kodály Symphony in C major. It’s one of the pieces on a generously plump Chandos recording of mostly lesser-known Kodály works by Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic.

First movement, Allegro. John S. Weissman writes, in an essay that is quoted in Percy Young’s book about Kodaly, that in the symphony the composer "conjures up visions of distant landscapes and far-off days, pondering on the memories of a world that is gone for ever." Young adds, "Nostalgia is a word that comes from some pens."

That is especially true in the second movement, but some of it is already present here in the first. Young finds the opening of the Symphony evocative and mysterious because it sets out in a low register, with cellos and basses announcing the main theme above a pedal note on the timpani. (Surely he’s right about the aura of mystery that can surround such an opening … think of the low, brooding start of Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter or Bantock’s Hebridean Symphony.)

Just as in Kodály’s Peacock Variations, there are passages in the first movement that make me think of Ralph Vaughan Williams. No doubt Vaughan Williams, with Kodály’s same allegiance to folksong, would have appreciated this symphony if he’d lived to hear it.

Already in the first movement, but in the two other movements as well, I find some bright writing for woodwinds, especially the oboe and clarinet.

What is deeply Magyar about the Symphony comes through particularly well in the second movement, marked Andante moderato. There is a wonderful theme with a suggestion of the East in it about 2:30 or 3 minutes into the movement.

Oddly enough, I also think of two great American symphonies. A glowering of strings at some points (try 2:20 into II) makes me think, if only momentarily, of the opening of Roy Harris's Symphony No. 3. And the overall folk-like quality of the movement evokes some of the same sort of feeling as the third movement of Randall Thompson's wonderful Symphony No. 3 – another work that suffers from undeserved neglect.

There's no break between the second and third movements of the Kodály Symphony, but an abrupt change in tempo tells you it has arrived. The movement is labeled Vivo - just right. It races in on horseback.

Here is where I quibble with those who say this symphony is about nostalgia. That may be true until this point, but the final movement steers away from all that. It’s like the Hungarian gentleman who finishes his sad tale over a glass of wine and gallops off into the midday sun. Musically, the spirit of the third movement is rather like the brisk parts of Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije Suite, or like Kodály’s own Hary Janos Suite.

It may be that the nostalgia element of this Symphony is stressed a little too much simply because Kodály happened to be nearing 80 years old when the work was finally completed. Yet as several critics note, Kodály began it decades before – and it seems to pick up exactly where he left off with what the composer was feeling then. It’s a young man’s symphony, as that romp of a finale shows.

However, this entire disc by the BBC Philharmonic thematically might be a look backward, in some sense. The Theatre Overture is adapted from Kodály’s Hary Janos opera, about the wonderful but fabricated adventures of a veteran of another era. The notes to this disc by Ian Stephens explain that Kodály recast the overture to Hary Janos in 1927 to make the Theatre Overture, then revised it between 1929 and 1932.

Dances of Marosszek – here the 1929 orchestral version of an original piano work - grew from one of Kodály's folksong-collecting expeditions in Transylvania (Marosszek is now in Romania). It’s Kodaly himself who puts this work firmly in the past. Laszlo Eosze’s book about Kodály quotes the master saying Brahms’ Hungarian Dances are typical of urban Hungary in about 1860. "My Dances of Marosszek have their roots in a much more remote past, and represent a fairyland that has disappeared", Kodaly said.

The remaining piece on this disc, Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra, is tethered to the past, too. In addition to the usual Kodályan influence of folksong, Stephens’ notes point out stylistic links with Baroque music.

All in all, this is a fine disc for tapping several works that might not get a mention in the music guides. The cover art shows a 1914 painting called Peasant by Zinaida Serebriakova.

For those who like Hungarian music enough to give Hungarian writing a try, I’d particularly recommend Gyula Krudy’s novel Sunflower, set in the marshy, birch-covered region of northeast Hungary, and his novel set in Budapest, The Crimson Coach. Historian John Lukacs has compared Krudy’s writing to the sound of a cello, and it’s said to be nearly impossible to translate because of its deeply Magyar music. Krudy writes with a sort of contented melancholy about dreamy landscapes and decaying Hungarian gentry – sort of a prose equivalent to the second movement of the Kodaly Symphony.

Sandor Marai’s novel, Embers, deserved the acclaim it won when it finally appeared in English translation a few years ago – sort of like Faulkner, as written by Hemingway, in Hungarian.

Zsigmond Moricz’s great classic, Be Faithful Unto Death, has been translated twice into English. It’s well worth reading for its look at Hungarian life through a boy’s eyes.

But for the music of Hungary that won’t spill through your hands in translation - Kodály may be still your best buy.

Lance Nixon

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