Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967) Dances from Galánta [16:54]; Háry János – Suite [23:26]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945) Two Portraits [12:37]; First Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra [10:26]
György LIGETI (1923-2006) Concert Românesc [13:18]
Mihaela Costa (violin)
Orquestra Gulbenkian/Lawrence Foster
rec. live November 2009, Grande Auditório, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal

Only a really grumpy listener could fail to enjoy this. Here is a well-chosen potpourri of 20th century Hungarian and Romanian showpieces, some famous and others slightly off the beaten track. Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta get a reading of gratifying vigor and allure, his Háry János Suite is very satisfyingly shaped, and shorter works by Béla Bartók and György Ligeti provide a more balanced picture of the nuances of the folk music movement.

Ligeti’s name might be a surprise inclusion, so we should start there. The Romanian Concerto is early Ligeti, dating from his 28th year, and it’s an extremely charming work which will instantly appeal to any admirer of Kodály or Enescu (or even Dvorák). Its two slow movements are in very different moods, complete with Bartókian violin solos, and the finale is a madcap folk dance with a catchy tune and truly zany, brilliant orchestration. The only hints of the sound-world we associate with mature Ligeti are in the tangy dissonances which occasionally give the concerto its color. The soloists are, unusally, two natural horn players, who bring the work to an unforgettable finish as a lone violin plays fiendish harmonics.

Indeed, there are quite a few soloists on this album. Orchestra leader Mihaela Costa supplies marvelously idiomatic violin solos in the short Bartók works, the First Violin Rhapsody and the Two Portraits, and also has a heavy workload in the Ligeti. Cyril Dupuy delivers a really delicious cimbalom performance in the Háry János suite — I’ve loved the cimbalom since first hearing it in a Hungarian expatriate club in Australia, years ago, and Dupuy’s playing is really as good as it gets. In fact, nearly everyone in the Gulbenkian Orchestra gets to chip in with a solo at some point. Sometimes they seem over-prominent (as in the opening of the Dances from Galánta), but the clarinets and horns, especially, really get into the rustic spirit of the music. The brass are suitably raucous in the battle scene of Háry János, too. Can the Gulbenkian Orchestra do Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra next?

Conductor Lawrence Foster, who, despite his very English name, has Romanian parents, is an energetic, devoted exponent of this music. He and the Gulbenkian Orchestra, which he has led since 2002, work together with flawless rapport: these are clearly artists thriving on each other’s presence. The Ligeti concerto, the least familiar music on the disc, is also the most thrillingly alive. The sound picture is wide and realistic (one can hear the violins divided), though it takes a while to adjust to the prominence of the solo players. Bass is gratifyingly present. There’s a weird buzzing sound at the start of Bartók’s first Portrait, but it is nearly inaudible and goes away before the music begins. If the program intrigues you - and, if you enjoy having fun, it should! - you have no reason whatever to hesitate. A solid 75 minutes of pure pleasure.

Brian Reinhart

A solid 75 minutes of pure pleasure, highlighted by a surprising Ligeti folk concerto.