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Alexander TANSMAN (1897-1986)
Triptyque (1930) [16:47]
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Overture for Strings (1949) [5:44]
Five Folk Melodies (1945) [5:21]
György SELMECZI (b.1952)
Concerto per 4 violini ed archi (1999)* [14:48]**
György ORBÁN (b.1947)
Court Dances (2011)* [18:50]
Zsolt Szefcsik, Emese Gulyás, Levente Szabó, Orsolya Kovács (violins)
Erdődy Chamber Orchestra/Marcin Nałęcz-Niesiołowski
rec. Budapest Music Centre, Budapest, Hungary, 10-12 June 2013
* first recording
DUX 0980 [61:30]

Music written for string orchestra is a perfect example of ‘less is more’. In it the very essence of music has been distilled, not that I don’t feel the same with regard to chamber music. There seems something very pure and clean about really well written music for string orchestra. The works presented on this disc are extremely good examples. As is often the case when listening to music by less well known composers one can’t help puzzling as to why they remain in obscurity when their music is so good.

The first work here, Tansman’s Triptyque is a case in point. Brought into being by that well-spring of so much commissioned music in America, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, it was premičred in Paris in 1931. Its urgency grabs you from the get-go and keeps you in its grip throughout. You may gain the impression that you’ve heard it before but that is because of the familiarity of works for string orchestra such as Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938-9), Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), Dag Wirén’s Serenade for Strings (1937) and others from that period. They all embody a ‘je ne sais quoi’ element that includes a rhythmic energy that is quite irresistible and extremely affecting. All those works also hark back to the past — whether as far as the 16th century as in Vaughan Williams’ case or simply to ancient peasant folk dances. They all have in common a bright, breezy, spontaneous and compact nature that is very attractive. Tansman’s work contains all those elements and repays repeated listenings when new things will be heard each time.

Lutosławski’s Overture for Strings is short but very sweet with its neo-classical style brought well and truly into the twentieth century. It’s tightly controlled writing makes for an attractive introduction to his world. His Five Folk Melodies would also be a way-in for those new to Lutosławski. These are really effective in their treatment of folksongs from the regions of Silesia, Cracow and Łowicz. The future development of his music took a different turn when he embraced dodecaphony. Some would find that more of a challenge but rewards there are in plenty for those who can meet it. These charming little vignettes, that in total last less than 6 minutes, are full of memorable tunes that will continue to pop up in your mind for some time afterwards.

Turning from Poland to Hungary we come to two composers I had not come across before, both of whose works receive their recording premičres with this disc. Győrgy Selmeczi was born in 1952 in Kolozsvár, once a town in Hungary but today the Romanian town of Cluj. He explains in the booklet notes that he wrote his Concerto for Four violins and strings as a tribute “to all sonic art for the strings ... beginning with the gypsy primases from Transylvania to the art of Reményi and Hubermann”. He explains that through the use of elements of the Baroque tradition, Romanticism and Neo-classical modernism, plus touches of folk music as used by Bartók, he “strives to make the combined effect of play, humour, nostalgia, and virtuosic performance into a source of joy both for the artist and the listener”. If he reads reviews and catches this one let me say that he succeeds in his aim in every way. His concerto is a wonderfully tuneful and attractive addition to the violin concerto repertoire. Once you’ve heard it you will puzzle as to why it has taken 15 years to appear on disc. The main theme that is introduced in the first movement is a very clever and lovely synthesis of all the elements he mentioned above. The second movement is a relaxed and languid waltz-like intermezzo. The last is a ‘dance for violins’. This begins firmly in a Hungarian gypsy style that is soon filtered through the aforementioned Neo-classicism. It becomes a fast and furious dance before having the brakes applied to continue in a reflective mood. It ends with a return to the main theme amidst a flurry of notes.

Győrgy Orbán is another whose town of birth shifted in ownership between Hungary and Romania where Marosvásárhely is now known principally as Târgu Mureŝ. His Court Dances takes 17th century court music from two Hungarian collections and with them celebrates the 16th-17th century court of Bathory. His use of these elements is extremely attractive. The Tango in 7 is an interesting take on a Hungarian tune by passing it through an Argentinean prism. Both of these Hungarian composers have a wonderful ear for melody and I look forward to exploring others of their works.

The Erdődy Chamber Orchestra play wonderfully with great verve and enthusiasm. The four soloists in the Selmeczi acquit themselves with fine playing coupled with bravura.

To sum up: this is a very enjoyable disc of classy music for strings. Much of it made me smile with delight. I was impressed by it all but the stand-out for me is the Tansman which is so brilliantly put together and chock-full of the most wonderfully hummable tunes.

Steve Arloff