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Zsigmond SZATHMÁRY (b. 1939)
Cadenza con ostinati (1994) for violin and organ [10:05]
B-A-C-H “Hommage à…” [11:06]
Dies irae – Tage des Zorns (2015) for organ and percussion [13:53]
Feuertaufe (2004) [11:11]
Bremer Dom-Musik (2013) for two organs [10:28]
Strophen (1988, rev. 2001) for organ and tape [11:34]
Sonido Ibeerico (2014) for Spanish organ [9:16]
Sense of Rhythm (2011) for organ and percussion [12:10]
Moving Colours (2006) [9:56]
Mors et vita (2015) [11:17]
Martin Schmeding (organ)
Wolfgang Kogert, Zsigmond Szathmáry (organ)
Anikó Katharina Szathmáry (violin), Olaf Tzschoppe (percussion)
rec. 2018, Abtei Marienstatt (Rieger organ, 1969-70); Lutherkirche Wiesbaden (Walcker organ 1911, and Klais organ, 1979).
Reviewed in SACD Binaural stereo.
CYBELE RECORDS 2SACD 061807 [2 SACDs: 56:44 + 54:12]

Zsigmond Szathmáry is a new name to me, but this merely serves to show how out of touch I am with the organ world these days. Hungarian by birth, he studied organ and composition at the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest, and has won awards and decorations recognising his achievements in both disciplines. The booklet notes for this release sum up his organ works as having “a high level of independence” and with “refreshing, thoughtful craft put to innovative ends”. After an educational grounding in Hungary and taking with him the aesthetic of Bartók, Szathmáry’s emigration to Western Europe brought him into contact with Stockhausen and fellow Hungarian Ligeti, and an assimilation of this stream of avant-garde creativity into his own personal language should give you some orientation into where this wide-ranging collection can be placed within the now almost infinitely varied world of contemporary music.

Cadenza con ostinati was written for the composer’s violinist daughter Anikó. The unequal weight of sound between violin and organ is solved through transparency of registrations and a lightness of touch in the writing for organ which turns the piece into a genuine dialogue between equal partners. This is virtuoso music, but takes us on some fascinating and at times beautifully surreal paths. The ostinato element is only really apparent in rather heavy repetitions near the end of the piece in the violin. B-A-C-H “Hommage à…” uses Bach, Buxtehude and Bruhns among its sources for material, though you probably wouldn’t guess it from a first or even fifth hearing. There are some remarkable effects to be found in this piece, including repeated low staccatos like a huge exhaust pipe early on, a huge range of colours and sonorities, and a dramatic, narrative feel to the structure sealed by a stunning final few minutes.

Dies irae – Tage des Zorns or, ‘Days of Anger’ starts with imposing organ chords and a startlingly threatening siren which seems intent in going on until it explodes. There need be no misunderstanding about the warlike connections here, though the piece is actually a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. The composer’s childhood memories of war serve to make this anything but jubilant, with references to tense periods hiding in bunkers, noises of gunfire and bombs and other disturbing imagery. Szathmáry’s skill in integrating such disparate sounds into finely crafted music allied to a really fine recording make this an unsettling and memorable experience. Feuertaufe or ‘Baptism by Fire’ received its title after being composed, but the suggestion of an “energetic language with tongues of fire” around the Biblical themes of Pentecost are in close alliance with the work’s extremes of sound, range and virtuosity. Perhaps it’s the religious element, but this is the first piece in which one might detect a few fleeting connections with Messiaen – always dissipated by Szathmáry’s own keenly developed idiom, but also communicating some of that sense of mystery and spiritual potency that lives inside every well-played organ. The Bremer Dom-Musik brings together the two organs of the Lutherkirche in Wiesbaden. These are romantic placed opposite neo-baroque in construction, but they work very well together indeed, and the recording creates more the impression of one huge instrument rather than a ping-pong of stereo effects. There are some fascinating moments, such as a wave of swell effects alternating between the instruments, and the tremendous sounds and interactions are always involving and work powerfully on the imagination.

Disc 2 opens with the remarkable sonorities of Strophen, which adds taped sounds to an already richly scored organ score. Desperate sounds such as a chaos of polystyrene are set against passages with a strange beauty, such as a section in which a Japanese koto is set against sparing notes from the organ. The strophes of this piece are described by the composer as being “an imaginary story without specific content.” There is a strange anarchy at work here, with ostinati that bring Ligeti to mind – that or a bizarrely huge and extravagant mechanical instrument that splurts out sounds with no regard to its audience, and managing to be hugely entertaining as a by-product. Sondo Iberico takes inspiration from Portuguese organist and composer Pedro de Araújo (ca. 1640-1705), and draws on the timbres of an Iberian baroque organ and in its use of typical tiento or battaglia forms and the ornamental stylistic gestures of the region and period. This is not to say that we lose Szathmáry’s own style in a blend of early music references, but the sound has a different kind of subtlety, and the filigree writing often creates a transparency which has an appeal of its own. Sense of Rhythm returns us to the dialogue theme, and here again with a percussionist adding a spectrum of tuned and un-tuned sounds which extend, enhance and at times go to war with the organ. The percussion part is a virtuoso tour de force and must be physically demanding in getting from one instrument to the next, let alone playing them all. Musically this is however very much an equal partnership, and the effects create a drama that seems greater than the few minutes of the work’s timespan.

The final two works are for organ alone. Moving Colours is designed for the range of registers available on a high-romantic instrument, and Szathmáry’s skill in transforming the organ from a chord-based or lyrical instrument with church associations into a dynamic and symphonic machine of fantasy and incredible flexibility is very much on show here. This is true of all of these organ works, but Mors et vita with its theme of Easter also reminds us of the spiritual and narrative potential of music from this source, with its references to ancient hymn melody and biblical imagery. Played by the composer, this work also has a poignant association, in that it has become a requiem for and homage to Szathmáry’s wife Ai, who died in 2016 after a half-century of companionship and support.

Zsigmond Szathmáry’s music isn’t ‘easy’, but if you are in a slippers and glass of port mood then there is plenty of choice elsewhere. Challenge and reward are present in this release in equal measure. It took me a short while to get into this composer’s sound-world, but once tuned-in I’ve found myself becoming alert to a wealth of nuances and sonic revelations – the kind which are well worth taking with you on life’s journey.

Dominy Clements

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