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Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
St. Gregory’s Day (1926) [3:25]
King Ladislaus’ Men (1927) [3:42]
Whitsuntide (1929) [8:06]
Ode to Franz Liszt (1936) [7:05]
Te Deum of Sándor Silk (1961) [4:38]
Jesus and the Traders (1934) [6:00]
The Aged (1933) [6:30]
Transylvanian Lament (1934) [4:27]
Mátra Pictures (1931) [10:33]
MR Children’s Choir (tracks 1-3); MR Choir/Ádám Fischer
rec. Hungarian Radio, February 2008


Experience Classicsonline

The Hungarian Radio Choir sings the majority of the works on this superb disc – MR stands for Magyar Rádió. The Hungarian Radio Children’s Choir sing the others. Both groups are directed by the distinguished Hungarian conductor, Ádám Fischer.

The disc opens with St. Gregory’s Day, a gay and lively series of folk melodies with a bagpipe drone coda added at the end. King Ladislaus’ Men, again based on folk themes, is more serious, evoking a children’s game wherein one group of children plays the part of German soldiers guarding a ruined bridge, whilst another represents Hungarians wanting to cross. Writing about the first piece in the accompanying notes – of which more later – Anna Dalos refers to “tunes of narrow range, close to one another, and easy for children to sing.” Well, easy it may be, but one can only marvel at the quality of the children’s singing here, in particular the absolutely spot-on tuning. Furthermore, and bearing in mind that Hungarian is a famously impenetrable language for many of us, the unanimity of attack ensures that the words are crystal-clear. Whitsuntide is a longer piece dealing with both the Christian feast and pagan spring rituals associated with it. The notes refer to both this piece and the previous one as suites, meaning a series of folk tunes one after the other, and whether it be simple homophonic harmonisations, imitative passages over drones or a host of other techniques, Kodály’s inventiveness never flags. Since the melodies themselves are delightful and the singing so spirited, I can’t recommend too highly these three pieces for children’s choir. Don’t expect King’s College trebles though: this is lusty children’s singing with lots of chest voice. Unmissable.

The remarkable quality of the children’s choir leads us to expect no less from the grownups, and we are not disappointed. The singing is strong and confident, and the huge dynamic range is confidently handled with, in particular, some excellent singing in the quieter passages. Central European choirs, and Hungarian choirs in particular, seem to aim less for a euphonious blend than those in the U.K. and Northern Europe, so don’t be surprised by a certain stridency of tone from time to time. The notes point out that while most of the music Kodály wrote for children is based on folk sources, much of his adult choral music is Nationalist in another, rather more political, sense. Thus the first piece, Ode to Franz Liszt, turns out not to be the act of musical homage we might expect, but rather an invocation to Liszt as a great Hungarian to come to rescue of his oppressed, defeated people. The Te Deum of Sándor Silk is a late work for two antiphonally placed groups. This lovely piece was new to me, and reading the notes again I learned that “personal reflections are interwoven into the text of this Hungarian ‘Te Deum’.” Alas, texts, essential to full appreciation of most of these pieces, are not provided, so I was unable to discover what these personal reflections were. Jesus and the Traders is a dramatic retelling of the story from the Bible wherein Jesus angrily drives the money traders out of the temple. The work requires virtuoso singers, and gives the basses of this excellent choir ample opportunity to shine. A moment of instability on the challenging final chord is a rare departure from near perfection. The Aged, a setting of a poem about old age by Sándor Weöres – who was only twenty when he wrote it – is by turns gloomy and consoling, whereas the following Transylvanian Lament, a set of variations on a folk song, is, as its title might suggest, fairly gloomy throughout. The collection ends with the better known Mátra Pictures. This work tell a gloomy story too, of an exiled outlaw, but there is much variety of atmosphere in the different folk songs on which it is based.

This is a well-planned selection of beautiful pieces, magnificently well sung and recorded in a generous acoustic. The accompanying essay by Anna Dalos is informative and particularly thought provoking, and the translation by Richard Robinson is so good that it reads as though it were originally written in English. The lack of texts is a serious drawback, though, as full appreciation of this marvellous music is only possible when one understands what is being sung. That said, the disc is a pleasure in itself that will also serve to whet the appetite of those who know and like Háry János, say, but would like to venture further into the world of this fascinating and endearing composer. Comparisons are pointless when dealing with this kind of collection, but just for the record the MR Choir more than holds its own (in Jesus and the Traders and the Mátra Pictures) against the Danish National Radio Choir conducted by Stefan Parkman on Chandos (CHAN9754), though this disc contains an excellent performance of Kodály’s glorious Missa Brevis. Otherwise listeners are directed to a series of CDs on the Hungaroton Label given by the Debrecen Kodály Chorus under their conductor Péter Erdei. The singing is of comparable quality and Kodály’s entire choral catalogue is represented. These discs are highly spoken of, but collectors should on no account miss this one.

William Hedley




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