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Leo WEINER (1885-1960) Ballad for Clarinet and Orchestra Op.28 (version for Viola) (1949) [12:37] Csongor and Tünde Op.10 Complete Ballet (2nd version) (1959) [53:35]
Máté Szűcs (viola)
Jubilate Girls Choir; Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV/Valéria Cśanyi
rec. Studio 6 of Hungarian Radio Budapest, Hungary, 13-14, 16-17 January 2015 NAXOS 8.573491 [66:12]
Outside the musical borders of Hungary, the name and music of Leo Weiner remains stubbornly little-known. A quick scan of the catalogue shows that relatively little of his music is available and once you remove recordings that are Hungaroton-sourced, there is next to nothing. Yet in the musical life of his country in the twentieth century Weiner is a towering influence. He attended the Liszt Academy in Budapest from the age of 16 where he was a composition pupil of János Koessler. Other Koessler pupils included Bartók, Kodály, Dohnányi and Kálmán. From 1907 Weiner taught music theory at the same Academy for over fifty years until his death in 1960. During that time his pupils included Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti, Béla Síki, János Starker and György Sebők.
Although his contribution to Hungarian musical life was most significant as an educator in his early years he had great success as a composer. Weiner's musical style is essentially conservative - the 1959 ballet score recorded here contains little that would shock a moderately conservative musician from half a century earlier. If the music does not shock it most certainly delights. Both works on this CD are called world premičres and their appearance on the ubiquitous Naxos label makes one hope for a much wider dissemination of this skilfully written and appealing music.
The disc opens with the Ballad for Viola and Orchestra. This piece has a slightly convoluted genesis; it started as Weiner Op.8 in 1908, written for clarinet and piano which was published with an alternative solo part for viola. In the 1930s Weiner orchestrated the clarinet version with reduced woodwind. He then revisited the work again in 1949, added six extra bars of music, thickened the orchestral parts and gave it the Opus number 28. The current recording - the 1930s clarinet version is available apparently - combines the original alternative viola part with the later 1949 orchestration. What is not wholly clear is whether this hybrid version was approved of by the composer. Whatever the reality it is a very attractive work - perhaps tricky to programme at just over twelve minutes long - but something of a find in terms of an addition to the concertante viola repertoire. Indeed, the work seems so well suited to the viola that I find it hard to believe it was conceived for a different instrument. The soloist here is the first solo violist of the Berlin Philharmonic Máté Szűcs. Szűcs makes a lovely sound, quite light but beautifully warm and agile or lyrical as the music requires. The good impression of the disc is furthered by the attractive playing of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra MAV. This slightly surprises me since I found the same orchestra in the same venue with the same sound engineer (but different producer) rather unremarkable when recording music by Eugene Zádor just four months before these sessions.
The liner makes no reference to any kind of narrative for this work and as with much of Weiner's music the main influences seem to be French - certainly in the clarity of the orchestration although harmonically he combines a more centrally Romantic use of tonality occasionally flecked with Nationalistic modal scales. Certainly Weiner is not an overtly 'Hungarian' composer - rather he mined the natural resources of his country's music to produce works that are inflected with a Hungarian accent rather than dominated by it.
The main event here is the first complete recording of the 1959 ballet Csongor and Tünde. This is another work with a somewhat complex evolution. It started in 1913 as incidental music to a staged version of an 1830 dramatic poem. However, Weiner's score proved too complex for the National Theatre to use so a section, Prince Csongor and the Goblins was excerpted for concert performance in 1914 although now given the title Intermezzo. Weiner went onto produce a Concert Suite and later again a nine-movement ballet version first performed in 1930. Finally, after World War II Weiner revisited the score again, expanding the ballet score to fourteen movements. This final version was premiered in 1959 and it is that 53 minute version we are given here. The liner states that Weiner considered this work his magnum opus and if indeed that is so this first recording of the complete score is an important event. Parts of the score have appeared on disc before. There is a CD of the six-movement suite on Hungaroton from Lázló Kovács and the North Hungarian Symphony Orchestra. Also, Weiner pupil Georg Solti recorded the Prince Csongor and the Goblins excerpt as part of a late live recording he made entitled Hungarian Connections. I have heard both these alternative performances. Solti is exciting and fiery as part of a very enjoyable survey of Hungarian music from Liszt to Bartók and Kodaly but even the great Chicago strings struggle to keep up with the cracking pace he sets - his Goblins are distinctly more menacing than the ones on the new Naxos disc; Solti plays the music that can be heard on tracks 6 and 7 on the Naxos disc. Kovács is good, aided by sensitive playing and good atmospheric recording. The Op.10b suite contains only just over half the complete score and as such is missing many atmospheric and beautiful pages including passages for an offstage children's choir - really beautifully sung here by the Jubilate Girls Choir. The sound they make - this is a wholly subjective comment I know - seems to chime ideally with the fairytale innocence of the story.
Part of the compact but very good liner supplied is a detailed synopsis as well as photographs from the original production. In essence the narrative is simple; wandering Prince Csongor encounters the wicked witch Mirigy tied to a tree. Although he releases her, she curses him. From the tree appears the good fairy Tünde who instantly falls in love with the Prince. The witch steals Tünde's magic veil forcing the fairy to leave the Prince forever. He follows, searching for his so recently found and lost love. In a cave Mirigy uses the veil to disguise her own daughter as Tünde and trick the Prince into wooing and marrying her. True love triumphs over such deception and the closing scene finds the happy couple back beneath the tree of the opening with a choir of fairies singing about eternal love.
There are extra diversions in the score - the goblin dance excerpted by Solti for example - which give plenty of diversity and colour to a simple tale. Overall this is a very delightful and skilfully crafted score. Weiner weaves motifs through the music which link characters effectively to their own themes. There are many attractive sections to the score - I particularly enjoyed the gently lilting The sorrowing Tünde [track 10] which is followed by an exciting Witches' Sabbath. From there to the end of the score there is a gentle pastoral ecstasy that is very touching. Great credit in the handling of the entire score must go to conductor Valéria Cśanyi. Cśanyi is a ballet specialist and brings a fluent grace to the playing which in the absence of any comparable version feels instinctively right. For all my usual admiration of Solti in direct comparison Cśanyi has a subtler and more emotionally engaging grasp of the score as opposed to Solti's rather more superficial exciting dash.
I would like to think that this disc will prove to be the start of a Naxos series investigating the further riches of Weiner's considerable art. Delightful music convincingly performed.