Antal DORÁTI (1906-1988)
Symphony No.1 (1957) [29:15]
Nocturne and Capriccio for Oboe and String Quartet (1926) [13:36]
Minneapolis Symphony/Antal Doráti
The Allegri String Quartet (Eli Goren and James Barton (violins), Patrick Ireland (viola), William Pleeth (cello)); Roger Lord (oboe)
rec. 1960/63, Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis
When I first started collecting recorded music it was usually repertoire rather than artist-led. These days I find I am much more curious about how specific performers approach - now familiar - pieces. Fairly recently I listened to much of my collection that featured Antal Doráti and was impressed all over again by not just the range of his work but its dynamic personality. Success in music from his Hungarian homeland comes as no great surprise but his equally considerable insights into everything else from Haydn, Delibes and Tchaikovsky to Copland, Szymanowski and Messiaen is admirable.

Add to that this disc from the Doráti Society featuring another facet of his work of which I was wholly ignorant - composer. He joins a long line of conductors aspiring to be composers - with a varying degree of success. My sense is that Doráti is one of the more successful. As a sampler of his work I have found this disc both wholly enjoyable as absolute music and impressive in its range and level of inspiration. I am rather labouring under a cloud of ignorance because as supplied this disc contains no information at all about the music except a track-listing and original recording/release dates. Turning to the Antal Doráti Centenary Society website, who produced this disc I gratefully gleaned the following comment written by Doráti himself:-

"My first composition teacher was Leo Weiner to whom I am deeply indebted for developing my taste and background as a performing musician. After one year with Weiner, I became the pupil of Zoltán Kodály, with whom I remained for the rest of my school life.  After a very prolific youth, my composing activities suffered a long hiatus of twenty years. The circumstances which led me back to writing music belong to another page, but it can be said that for twenty years or so the flow of energy has been such that I regularly produce at least one major work a year, depending on how demanding my conducting schedule is.  If my creative work is not in conformity with today's trends, it is so according to the natural way of my own musical and personal development and above all, to my artistic conscience. As my teacher, Zoltán Kodály, said 'All of us must bring along our own brick.' ".

Unfortunately that site says nothing about the main work here - the Symphony No.1 - and the companion site ( simply lists the date of composition, first performance and orchestration. At least from that I learn that this recording - originally for Mercury - was made just a month after the first performance. The orchestra was the Minneapolis Symphony with whom Doráti forged a very successful and fruitful relationship - much of which has been preserved on famed Mercury recordings. This new to CD transfer has been made from Mercury test pressings. One thing that needs to be mentioned early on is that the sound, whilst very present and vibrant is also harshly lit giving just about all the instruments in the orchestra a tonal edge that is actually quite wearing. Doráti's writing is very demanding indeed but his Minneapolis players clearly have his complex writing completely mastered. The Symphony is in five movements, a central spiteful scherzo framed by two reflective movements; an Andante and a Nocturne. In turn these are bookended by another pair of high-energy virtuoso orchestral displays; an opening Sonata: Vivace con brio and a closing Rondo Finale. This is not the only available recording of this work. There is a BIS recording of the two Doráti symphonies of which No.1 is a live performance given by the Stockholm Philharmonic and fortunately one can read/download the composer's extensive analysis of the work. Dipping into that via the website I have to say that the extra tonal allure of the early (1972) BIS recording which does pay dividends in the more reflective passages is more than balanced by the loss of razor-sharp ensemble and bitingly sour primary colour brilliance of the Minneapolis version. Furthermore the live performance does bring extraneous sounds and the occasional fluff and in fact a rather hissy analogue recording. So for all the value of gaining Doráti's Second Symphony in a studio performance for this symphony alone I would stick with Minneapolis.

Doráti dives straight into the musical argument with a muscular driving Vivace con brio. This is characteristic of the entire work - there is a sense of pure musical muscle and honed intellectual thought. Nothing is 'fleshed out' or gratuitous. He is not a composer who gets diverted by passages of languorous beauty. Another quote - this time by Calum MacDonald - is succinct and accurate: "The orchestral brilliance is doubtless to be expected from a conductor of Doráti's vast experience and his scores are full of strikingly effective sonic inspirations - never used merely for 'effect', but for their relevance to the argument in hand." The positives from this - as implied by MacDonald - are that even on early acquaintance there is strong sense of linear form and the definition of the various movements is very clear. This rigour brings with it a certain emotional detachment. What I do find interesting is that the quality that Doráti brought to much of his conducting is evident in his composition too. There is dynanism in the music regardless of tempo, a sense of a coiled spring seeking release that is very powerful. Courtesy of the BIS liner essay I take two essential quotes:-

" Above all: it belongs to none of the present day "schools" But it does belong to the present times. It is international music - as I too have led an international life, but does not deny its Hungarian origin - as I am standing to mine. Like all art, mine too points to the future, though in no way as a programme and not forgetting the past. It is however in real terms music created for the present by the present not in an abstract isolation but in the midst of experience not for a specific purpose but simply to be heard..... If I must now say something about the character the nature of this Symphony as seems to be the case! I should describe it as a rather harsh, defiantly joyful piece of music - an "arrival to myself" which it really was."

The allusion to coiled energy struck me before I read the BIS liner but is interesting because the work was composed in a relatively short period of time after a compositional interregnum for Doráti which had lasted some 20 years - he describes its creation as "explosive after a long period of fermentation". Doráti's comment about the music's Hungarian origin is interesting. With the direct influence of Weiner and Kodály and the dominating musical personality of Bartok it would be remarkable if this music did not reveal its musical heritage. Most of the time it does not - more a citizen of the modern musical world although the turn of a phrase or snapping rhythm is unmistakeably from that country. Curiously, in the central Scherzo - "a rather wild joke" is how Doráti understatedly describes it - suddenly a phrase almost directly lifted from The Miraculous Mandarin appears. But this is countered by a structure which is positively Classical; aping a minuet with two trios. This fusion of the formally 'classical' with music that sounds wildly modernistic is interesting. It sounds the very devil to play - an interlocking collage of fragmented motifs - miss an entry at your considerable peril.

Another Bartokian influence is the inclusion of a night-music Nocturne as the 4th movement. Doráti describes this as a long (slow) introduction to the finale. This is the section where the 'glare' of the Mercury recording detracts most from the undoubtedly atmospheric music. The Minneapolis oboe in particular is caught with a very sour tone. Likewise the recording in early fairly crude stereo catches the whole orchestra with a very shallow sound stage with almost no sense of front to back or space around the players. Doráti describes this impressive movement is positively Romantic terms:-

"The sound of crickets starts the movement accompanying a long hesitating somewhat anxious melody. This is interrupted by sudden accents - human voices, or animals or snapping branches in the trees bordering the unmade country road? They die away: the crickets too are silent . The song of the night grows gradually, the dark star-sown sky is amazingly large. Night takes its leave - the crickets too. The movement ends in a premonition of the coming day." He then goes onto to describe the closing Allegro robusto as "a day on which one is glad to wake up."

Rather than being any kind of programme music - which I suppose the Nocturne is - this is a rigorously worked out complex structure again full of athletically virtuosic music for the whole orchestra. Doráti describes it as the longest section of the work - by which I assume he means number of bars since it plays for a minute and a half shorter than the second movement Andante. Although Doráti is at pains to distance his music from the more radical experiments of the 1950's this is still music of its time. Yes, it is tonal music - albeit an extended tonality with little use for comfortable consonance - but there is a definite sense of being from the 'age of anxiety'. Overall, a very impressive work and a confidently individual one as well.

The disc's filler is about as different - but still impressive - as it could be - this was also the filler on the original Mercury release. It is a chamber piece for string quartet and oboe that comes from before Doráti's compositional impasse. Again, this is not the only recording - there is one on MDG from the Leipziger String Quartet and Yeon-Hee Kwak on oboe [there is some ambiguity on the disc cover which states "first CD release of both works" when they mean first release on CD of these recordings. Curious too that the main work is simply titled 'Symphony' whereas it is clear that there is a Symphony No.2 Perhaps a legacy of the original release?]. The recording offered here is by the ever excellent Allegri Quartet with Roger Lord is much mellower than that afforded the symphony The two movements are strongly contrasted with the opening - another Notturno more closely related to the later work with Hungarian rhythms, tonal ambiguity and the use of multiple meters - but created using a pastel palette of colours rather than the gaudy oils of the symphony. Even in the midst of the complexities of this work the essential spirit seems much more playful, less troubled than in the symphony. This is especially true of the closing Capriccio [which starts at 8:10 of track 6 - there is no subdivision] which has a simplicity and clarity quite unlike anything else presented here. As such it provides another fascinating facet of Doráti's compositional personality.

Again with little information supplied by the liner, this time the Allegri Quartet's website tells me that this recording was in 1963 - and as such constituted one of the quartet's earliest recordings. The Dorati website lists this as being composed in 1926 and as such one of his earliest surviving compositions. They also mention in passing that it started life as a four movement oboe quintet - why this happened is not elaborated upon. What is certain is that this is a very competent and confident work for a twenty year old to produce which leaves one with the wish - all too rare amongst conductor/composers - that he had written more.

All in all a very interesting disc of music of real interest and individuality. By replicating the original LP release the playing time of barely 42 minutes is exceptionally short - if the society have other Doráti works in their archive it is a shame they did not tag it on here. The documentation is so restricted that I wonder if somehow I have received an incomplete copy of the liner.

Well-worth exploring even with the short playing time and unsophisticated sonics.

Nick Barnard

Well-worth exploring even with the short playing time and unsophisticated sonics.