Kodály’s music is owned by Hungarian conductors. They feel it
deeper, and convey its spirit better. Ádám Fischer is the elder
brother of Ivan Fischer and is probably mostly known for his
association with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn orchestra. His recording
of Kodály’s three most popular works for orchestra is worthy,
but has a few drawbacks that prevent it from being put on the
shelf with the best available choices. It seems that the root
of all the problems is the distant, reverberant acoustics. The
performance is also slower than usual, but this could be a deliberate
adjustment made by the conductor in order to better deal with
the acoustic situation.
The orchestral suite from Háry János is a treasure chest.
The brooding Prelude starts with the famous “musical
sneeze” – according to a Hungarian tradition, the sneeze proves
that the following story is true! Viennese Musical Clock
is light and crisp. Song is slow and atmospheric, with
oriental shadows. It starts cool and gradually warms and collects
colors, including the cimbalom. Battle and Defeat of Napoleon
is a vivid scene ruled by brass and percussion; saxophone creates
novel sonorities. Intermezzo is my favorite. It is in
ABA form and has a genuine folk character, with plenty of cimbalom
for everyone. This is open, proud and noble music from the world
of Liszt’s Rhapsodies and Brahms’ Dances. The
middle part is relaxed and transparent. Finally, Entrance
of the Emperor is a bouncy, slightly comical march with
a lot of oompah, little bells, trumpets, drums and piccolos.
The march grows, covered in brass, becomes more opulent and
triumphant, and all ends in grand jubilation.
My favorite recording of this work is by Istvan Kertesz and
LSO on Decca/Belart. Despite the slight tape hiss, this is the
most direct and vivid 3D. The music just leaps at you! His Prelude
is deep and grand, and his musical sneeze is contagious. His
Song has more contrasts, and the middle episode is dance-like.
Kertesz rushes into the battle with Napoleon and his army, which
is portrayed as a huge, heavy-footed monster. His Intermezzo
is full of strength. The tutti are very tutti,
and probably too much tutti. The cimbalom is very forwardly
placed: on one hand you hear it well; on the other hand it is
detached from the orchestra. He emphasizes the comical side
of the Emperor’s march, but towards the end gives us an accelerating
storm. In brief, this is the most electrifying reading.
I also listened to two Antal Doráti recordings. The one with
the Minneapolis Orchestra does not come alive, because of the
very even, steady beat. The music becomes square and mechanical,
as if conducted by a metronome – this is especially noticeable
in the Intermezzo. On the other hand, his Battle
and Emperor parts have impressive power. Dorati’s recording
with Philharmonia Hungarica has poorer acoustics and is characterized
by huge dynamic leaps between loud and quiet. In the Battle
the pauses are big, so everything falls apart. The saxophone
is not very interesting, but the trumpets are excellent, and
the culmination is like a volcano erupting. Overall, this recording
sounds good but ordinary, without the fire brought by Kertesz.
Fischer’s recording has many pros and contras. His “sneeze”
does not have the same vividness as Kertesz’s, but his slower
approach brings good fruit in the Prelude, leading you
into the magical fairytale, like Tchaikovsky’s growing Christmas
tree. In the Song, the opening cello is rather expressionless;
but again the relaxed middle episode uncovers new sides. In
the Battle scene, he has an exceptional saxophone, and
a greater feeling of depth, of multi-layered sonority. The approach
of the French army is very graphic. He brings excellent rhythmic
spontaneity to Intermezzo, and his syncopation is very
alive; but the distant recording reduces the effect. The cimbalom
blends with the orchestra – usually it is very separate. Entrance
of the Emperor seems too fussy. When the march is growing,
the sound becomes blurred. The acceleration is well done, but
the orchestra sounds thinnish.
Kodály lived in Galánta for seven years, and there he listened
to the famous local band. Dances of Galánta is like a
musical memoir from these days, a whirling sequence of 17th
century Hungarian dances, going faster and faster. The first
one is slow and stately. The second is reminiscent of the Hungarian
Dances by Brahms. The third is slender and frolicsome, framed
by the returns of the slow opening motif. We start building
the steam with the fourth dance, alive and heavily syncopated.
Suddenly the momentum is suspended for a nonchalant, slightly
tipsy episode – but then the rolling resumes, and everything
bursts loose in the fifth dance, the fastest. This is the apotheosis
of movement and joy, and in all music only the end of Enescu’s
Romanian Rhapsody No.1 can compete with the impact of
this uninhibited swirl. We slow down for one last reflection
before rushing into the abandon of the swirling dance!
Fischer’s approach to this score is very symphonic. He keeps
the energy for the ending, and starts slowly and cautiously.
As a result, the contrast between the dances is more pronounced,
and the ending becomes even more effective. His third dance
is more dainty than playful. The fourth has a feeling of inevitability.
It’s impossible to stay calm and indifferent. The last dance
will make your heart beat faster – this is absolute happiness.
If only the recording was closer and better! I swear I hear
real reverberating echoes – especially in the closing chords.
The last work is a set of orchestral variations on an old Hungarian
song The Peacock. The spirit of the ancient times is
created by the heavy use of the pentatonic scale, as well as
the rich, brocade orchestration. There is no overarching idea:
these are variations for variations sake. The work is large
– about half an hour. It is a long journey, you see wonders
on every step, but as any long journey it can become tiring.
Even Kertesz loses my attention somewhere mid-way. But Fischer
conveys a sense of purpose that, even with his unrushed tempos,
propels this leviathan forward. Fischer paints on a grand scale.
The string climaxes are massive. The rhythmically rich, active
parts receive exuberant treatment like new Polovtsian Dances.
The slow episodes are grandiose yet thoughtful. In the middle
of the road we enter the ethereal realm where the time stands
still. The dirge is haunting, and the flute solo is sublime.
The last part is again full of movement, the music is iridescent
and festive. This is an excellent reading, highlighting all
the wonders of the score – although I feel that it lacks some
enthusiasm. Again, all is let down by the diffuse recording
Summarizing, these are good performances, a bit on the slow
side, but not the best available, chiefly because of the acoustic