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Štefan Margita: Slzy a úsmevy (Tears and Smiles) - Slovak and Hungarian Songs
Mikuláš SCHNEIDER-TRNAVSKÝ (1881 – 1958) Slzy a úsmevy, Op. 25 (Tears and Smiles): A Ring; A Song; Vesper Dominicae; A Crow Flying; The Little Foot; Lullaby; The Morning Bell; Magdaléna; Zo Srdca (From My Heart): If I were a Bird;
Béla BARTÓK (1881 – 1945) Hungarian Folksongs: Far Behind I Left My Country; Crossing the River; The Horse-thief; In the Summer Field; I Was in a Garden Green; Deceived in Love; Love’s a Burden; Walking Through the Town; The Horseman; My Love Has Gone A-ploughing;
Sylvie BODOROVÁ (b. 1954) The Setting Sun – Seven Slovak Folksongs for Two Voices, Harp and Piano: Bad News; She Gave Me a Little Feather; Sundown; Not Ploughing, Nor Sowing; Blow, Wind, Blow; Why?; Ask Balazs
Štefan Margita (tenor), Gabriela Beňačková (soprano) (Bodorová), Katarína Bachmannová (piano)(Schneider-Trnavský, Bodorová), Kateřina Englichová (harp) (Bartók, Bodorová)
rec. Lichtenstein Palace, Prague, December 2005, January 2006
ZENTIVA UP 0084-2 131 [57:15]

Just the other day I reviewed a companion disc with the same artists and, except for Bartók, the same composers (see review). On that disc soprano Gabriela Beňačková was the featured singer and Štefan Margita appeared as guest; on this disc the situation is reversed. There is also a reversed recording balance, which is apparent in the first group of songs, by Schneider-Trnavský. Beňačková was, in her corresponding group, placed close to the microphones with a recessed piano; here the piano is well in the foreground and Margita has to fight a little to be properly heard. But it also has something – quite a lot – to do with the accompaniment. Beňačková’s songs were in the main simple, folksong-like pieces with an unobtrusive piano part. Margita has chosen works that are more through-composed with the accompaniment a more equal partner and harmonically more advanced; more real lieder, if you like. They are also more declamatory in character. All this means that we get a different side of Schneider-Trnavský’s talent, so the two discs complement each other.

Most of the songs are inward in character, although A Crow Flying is dark-toned and dramatic and The Little Foot is light and lively. Štefan Margita has an attractive voice, sweet and mellifluous at nuances up to mezzo-forte. Under pressure it hardens and adopts a bright and penetrating quality. It is not unattractive in itself and he utilizes it with discrimination but it is his softer singing that is most appealing – not least his lovely half-voice. He gives artful and deeply felt renderings of all the songs. Any of them would be a good introduction to Margita but personally I would opt for the beautiful Lullaby (track 6) as a suitable calling-card. It seems that the eight songs from Tears and Smiles are just excerpts from a longer cycle, published in 1912. Most of the songs are earlier: A Crow Flying was first performed in 1904. Some critics at the time of its publication complained that the songs lacked "Slovak character" – the character that can be found in abundance in the contemporaneous songs on the Beňačková disc. The “encore” to this group of songs, If I Were a Bird, is very popular in Slovakia and has almost attained folk-song status.

In 1906 a collection of 20 Magyar Népdalok (Hungarian Folksongs) was published, the first ten arranged by Bartók, the remainder by Kodály. The Bartók settings are fairly well-known but this recording presents a performance with a difference: the piano accompaniments are played on the harp, which renders them simpler, softer and more intimate. Štefan Margita also sings them simply and straightforwardly and with nice feeling for the sometimes intricate rhythms. Since they are very short – ten songs executed in less than seventeen minutes – they should be heard as a unity, one of the points being the contrasts within the "cycle".

The last cycle on the disc made me a bit confounded to begin with. Sylvie Bodorová’s The Setting Sun – Seven Slovak Folksongs, written "especially for this recording project" the liner notes tell us, also appears on the companion disc. I thought it a bit unfair to record buyers who want both discs, but when listening and comparing it is evident that they are not entirely identical. Firstly, if recording dates are to be trusted, the Beňačková disc was recorded in November 2005, while the dates for the present disc are December 2005 and January 2006; secondly they do differ. On the Beňačková disc the first two songs of the cycle are sung as duets, while on this disc they are both tenor solos. For the remaining five I am not so sure. I have listened again to both sets and if there are differences they are negligible. Playing times for the individual songs are identical, give or take a second. Really close listening may reveal more but I had no wish to indulge in scrutinizing every bar. Suffice to say that, whichever version you buy, you will get some fresh, funny and beautiful songs (Sundown, track 22, a lovely duet) and the combination of piano and harp gives the music a colour of its own. Ideally you need both.

One of the pleasures of reviewing is to discover music and musicians one probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. It is a pleasure to report to adventurous readers and hope they will share my enthusiasm. In other words: Recommended.

Göran Forsling

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