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Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
String Quartet No. 1, op. 2 (1908/9) [41:18]
Intermezzo, for string trio (1905) [5:10]
Gavotte, for string quartet (1952) [2:35]
String Quartet No. 2, op. 10 (1916-18) [17:30]
Dante Quartet
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 2013.
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download from Hyperion.
HYPERION CDA67999 [66:33]

Kodály is one of those composers whose name seems to be better known than his music. If someone was to ask me to name some of his works, I would have said Háry János, a sonata for solo cello and then I would have had to stop. What’s worse, I wouldn’t have been able to recognise either of those works had someone played them to me. Considering this, I began to wonder whether I was a suitable person to write this review. What I did know was that Kodály, a classmate of Bartók in Budapest, didn’t take the modernist road to the same extent as his more famous friend, and that some have likened Kodály to Vaughan Williams. This encouraged me to think that it was time to get to know some of his music. I daresay there are some readers out there for whom his music is a similarly blank page.

There can’t be too many conventional string quartets longer than Kodály’s First. When you consider that the scherzo third movement is not even five minutes long, it makes the other three very substantial at twelve minutes or thereabouts each. I’m not convinced that there is enough musical content in them to support such major structures. There is a lot of repetition and meandering, especially in the slow movement.  I feel that I should be writing more about a work bordering on three-quarters of an hour long, but I honestly can't.

Much of the disappointment with the First Quartet was washed away by the Second. It is characterised by more engaging melodies, more interesting harmonies and rhythms, and most importantly of all, succinctness. A number of times in the middle movement, it seems as though we are about to hear The Lark Ascending, so similar is the rising melody. Given that the premiere of the Vaughan Williams was in 1920, it would seem that this is one of those odd coincidences. The composer’s interest in the folk music of his country really is given full expression in the final movement, though there are no direct quotations. ArkivMusic lists only three two recordings of the First Quartet, but eight for the Second. I think I see why.

The fillers are genial and entertaining, but no more. The very brief Gavotte, written long after the other works, was originally scored for the unusual combination of three violins and cello, but here the third violin part is taken by the viola.

If you want both quartets, there isn’t much choice. The only other recordings are an early BIS one with the Kontra Quartet, and the Alexander Quartet on Foghorn (review). Dominy Clements in his review of the latter notes that the sound quality for the Kontras is not great. Their First Quartet runs for almost 45 minutes, which I don’t think is a good thing. The Alexanders are unquestionably an outstanding quartet, but their release is a 3-disc set with the six Bartok quartets, making it a more substantial outlay.

I can’t say that my entrée into the world of Kodály’s music has fired me with the desire to seek out more immediately. Perhaps I should have started with some of the presumably more colourful orchestral works.

David Barker