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Mátyás SEIBER (1905-1960)
Ulysses, Cantata for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra (1947) [48.50]
Elegy for solo viola and small orchestra (1954) [8:09]
Three Fragments from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1957) [18.28]
Alexander Young (tenor); BBC Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra/David Atherton (Ulysses)
Cecil Aronowitz (viola); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mátyás Seiber (Elegy)
Peter Pears (narrator); Dorian Singers, Melos Ensemble/Mátyás Seiber (Three Fragments)
rec. BBC archive, broadcast, 21 May 1972 (Ulysses); Elegy, Three Fragments originally released on Decca SXL2232 (1960)

Occasionally a new release comes along which seems to tick all the right boxes. For me this is one such disc; a remarkable discovery, as none of the music featured I’d heard before. To those, like myself, only familiar with the a cappella Hungarian and Yugoslav Folk Song settings, this Lyrita issue will be a revelation, both challenging and persuasive.

Mátyás Seiber was born in Budapest in 1905, studying music with Zoltán Kodály at the city’s Academy. In the late 1920s he went to Frankfurt as cellist in the Lenzewski Quartet. He also did some conducting. It was around this time that an interest in jazz was awakened, and in 1928 he became director of the jazz department at Hoch Conservatory. With the rise of Nazism, Seiber became one of the many émigrés who fled Germany, settling in London in 1935. He founded the Dorian Singers, who feature in this release, and joined the staff of Morley College at the behest of Michael Tippett. His pupils include such names as Peter Racine Fricker, Malcolm Lipkin, Anthony Milner and Hugh Wood. Sadly, his life was cut short at the age of fifty-five when he was killed in a car accident in South Africa, during a lecturing tour.

Like Moeran, Bax and the American composer George Antheil, Seiber was drawn to the writings of the  Irish novelist and poet, James Joyce (1882-1941) (see article about Seiber and Joyce). In 1947 he composed his Cantata Ulysses, the most substantial work on this disc, nearly 50 minutes long, set in five movements and scored for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra. Seiber was attracted to “Ithaca”, the penultimate chapter of the Joyce novel, which he abridged to a workable length. Very simply put, Stephen Dedalus and his guest walk out into the darkened garden and behold the splendour of the heavens, and a profound astronomical discussion takes place between Stephen and Leopold Bloom. The work had its premiere in May 1949 at Central Hall, Westminster under Walter Goehr. What we hear on this disc is a BBC archive performance from 1972 in which the LSO was conducted by David Atherton. The excellent tenor is Alexander Young. It’s a well-rehearsed and well-managed performance, in which all taking part acquit themselves admirably. Ulysses is a masterstroke of orchestral scoring and choral writing.

In Three Fragments from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1957) Seiber again takes his inspiration from James Joyce. The work was the result of a commission from the International Society for Contemporary Music (Swiss section) and was given its premiere in Basel in November 1958, under the direction of the composer. It is lightly scored for speaker, wordless chorus and eight instruments; the vibraphone adds an interesting touch of colour. The speaker’s role is cast in sprechgesang, with Seiber indicating the relative pitches of the spoken text. It is set in three movements. In the first, floating clouds mirror Stephen Dedalus’ inner peace. The second portrays Father Arnall’s hellfire sermon on the Last Judgement, and finally Dedalus falls asleep on the beach after admiring a girl bathing her legs in the water. Seiber’s work showcases some expert craftsmanship, and throughout the three sections the listener is taken on a journey of contrasting moods. Peter Pears delivers his diction with superb clarity and utter commitment. So clear is the recorded sound you don’t even need to follow the text. Seiber, together with the Dorians and the Melos Ensemble, secure a convincing and incandescent interpretation. The recording was made by Decca in 1960.

Like the Three Fragments, the Elegy for Solo Viola and Small Orchestra derives from the same Decca LP. Commissioned by the Donaueschingen Festival, Seiber composed it in 1953, and it was premiered a year later by Ulrich Koch and the Southwest German Radio Orchestra under Hans Rosbaud. It was 1956 before an English performance took place. It’s a sombre and introverted work, and an ominous and portentous aura pervades the narrative. Once again the scoring displays exceptional skill and ingenuity. Cecil Aronowitz’s eloquent and expressive reading is suitably complemented by the composer’s deft handling of the LPO, offering sensitive dynamic support.

As is the norm with this label, Lyrita’s high artistic quality and superb sound are very much in evidence. Excellent, informative annotations are provided by Hugh Wood, Paul Conway and Alan Gibbs, whose article ‘Seiber’s Joyce Cantatas’, published on the MusicWeb International site, provides insightful and scholarly context. Texts for Ulysses and the Three Fragments are supplied. Each of these performances is delivered with purposeful intensity and commitment, and all concerned prove worthy advocates of these alluring scores. This stimulating release offers much food for thought, and is seriously worth a punt.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous reviews: John France and John Sheppard



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