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Sándor VERESS (1907-1992)
String Quartet No. 1 (1931) [16:58]
String Quartet No. 2 (1937) [27:21]
String Trio (1954) [20:31]
Sándor Veress reads Gesang und Musik in de ungarischen Dörfern (1975) [102:57]
Mirjam Wiesemann in conversation with Claudio Veress, son of the composer. [54:13]
Doelen Quartet Rotterdam
rec. 2012, Deutschlandfunk Kammermisiksaal, Köln
Reviewed in SACD stereo.

Sándor Veress grew up and was educated in Budapest. After a certain amount of travelling through Europe he became a political émigré at the end of the 1940s and ended up in Bern. Veress’s vivid and complex autobiography is printed in the booklet for this ninth volume of Cybele’s very fine ‘Artist in Conversation’ series. In Hungary, Veress is now seen as a connecting link between Bartók and his own three great students, Heinz Holliger, György Ligeti and György Kurtág. Veress was very much occupied with the collection of folk songs while a student of Bartók’s, working as his assistant at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Seen as the “Grand Synthesis”, Veress’s string quartets and trio represent a striving to integrate tradition with contemporary innovation. The First Quartet is a clear reflection of Varess’s immersion in folk music, and the influence of Bartók is also a constant feature. There are elements of serial technique to be found, but even in the more intense leanings towards modernist expression this is music that has an earthy honesty. The first of the two faster outer movements has passages of great lyrical beauty as well as a rhythmic impulse in both that can rival Stravinsky. The central Andante is a refined exploration of “melancholic rapture and ceremonial solemnity.”

The Second Quartet retains elements of the folk music and Bartók influences, but the exploratory feeling now also delves deeply into polyphony, motivically based on the interval of a minor third and culminating in an impressively crafted ‘whisper fugue’ in the third movement. The technical demands on the quartet are also raised to greater heights, giving this music a more abstract impression while still retaining rewardingly human dimensions. This quartet is by no means impenetrable, but is certainly more intellectually demanding than the first.

Veress’s String Trio is regarded as one of his most important works. Serial technique comes further to the fore here, but expressive eloquence and vividly defined moods are still very much a strong set of qualities. The second of the two movements is based entirely on a note row, “my utilisation of this series follows strict laws, as is customary in the serial technique,” but the gripping drama that results from this dryly academic description is never anything less than fascinating. The intertwining of traditional Hungarian melodic shapes with tightly argued twelve-tone structures creates something surprisingly magical in its effect.

Performances by the Doelen Quartet and recordings are all superlatively excellent, but there is some competition in this repertoire. The Hungaraton label with Ensemble Des Équilibres (review) is played with a more blowsy extravagance but hits the Hungarian folk character with a more recognisably national feel. Different couplings give the Basel String Quartet on Toccata Classics (review) additional appeal, and their passionate and committed performances have much to commend them, though I do find the Doelen Quartet more rhythmically compelling and atmospheric.

The conversation CDs have an extensive 1975 radio broadcast with Veress’s recollections on trips collecting recordings of folk music, as well as his research into Hungarian musical ethnography. This is a well preserved and clear talk which, even with my poor German language skills, I felt I could just about follow. On the third disc, the composer’s son Claudio Veress talks about both his childhood, his relationship with his father and his own further life alongside other anecdotes. As ever these will be a hard sell for English speaking buyers, but they are vital resources when it comes to having a deeper understanding of such a key composer.

Dominy Clements



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