Leó WEINER (1885-1960) Complete Works for Orchestra - Volume 2
Toldi, Symphonic Poem op. 43 (1952)
Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV / Valéria Csányi
rec. 2017, Studio 6, Hungarian Radio, Budapest NAXOS 8.573847 [64:49]
When it comes to writing reviews, I am sure I am not alone in trying hard not to fall back on tired clichés. But try as I might, I cannot find a better word to describe Leó Weiner's Toldi than sprawling. Apparently Weiner himself tried various different titles for the work - including symphony - before settling on Toldi - Symphonic Poem (Twelve Orchestral Pictures after the Epic Poem by János Arany). Toldi - as related in the 19th Century epic poem is a legendary Hungarian hero - much along the lines of Gliere's Ilya Murometz or Sibelius' Kullervo rather than more historical figures such as Taras Bulba or Kossuth.
The complete score - played with real verve and virtuosic empathy here - runs to some sixty-five minutes, with each of the twelve pictures rendered into sound with near-cinematic care. So much so that conductor Valéria Csányi prepared for this recording by presenting the work in concert with each line of the poem projected onto a screen behind the orchestra as they played. According to a personal note from Csányi included in the liner, this was a great success, with the music of the score matching the text literally line for line. Indeed, the liner goes on to suggest that the listener to this disc should likewise read the poem at the same time for maximum impact - a link to a translation into English of the full poem is also provided. I must admit to not having taken advantage of that facility. Quite such slavish representation of deed and thought in music I find rather tedious. And therein lies my problem with this score. Simply put, it tries too hard to illustrate at any given moment a very specific event from the poem, so it is driven by narrative rather than musical need. The result is a highly colourful, often very effective, score but one that is by very definition episodic. Clearly, both the composer himself and, indeed, the liner writer here are aware of 'issues' with this score. Apparently it was not a success at its premiere. As one of Weiner's most substantial scores, it is no surprise that he was loath to abandon so much work and commitment. Hence he reworked two suites from the score - cutting the music in half - for use by his former pupil Fritz Reiner in Chicago – tellingly, Reiner never played it. Naxos have digitally released a version of these suites alongside this complete recording which I assume is literally the same performances re-edited into suite form.
Elsewhere I have enjoyed the music of Leó Weiner a lot. He was a contemporary of Dohnányi, Kodály, Bartók and Kálman and later the teacher of the aforementioned Reiner, as well as Solti, Fricsay and Doráti amongst others. So he was at the very centre of a remarkably rich period of musical life in Hungary. His own music stays resolutely neo-Classical, and in Toldi neo-Romantic, and in that sense he suffers the same fate as other similarly conservative composers whose later scores are simply out of step with the music of the age in which they are written. From the perspective of nearly seventy years later this is much less of an issue but it remains that the virtues of the score are its colour and incidental narrative power rather than any great melodic memorability or formal originality. Again, I am loath to fall back on the use of "cinematic" as a descriptor - but that is what it is.
All praise to the quality of this performance and the very detailed liner note, which helps the listener follow the action as closely as possible, but I must admit that I rather lost the will to engage with it after a while. For example the music staring at 2:38 of Scene III is described in the score thus; "the wooden spears whirled in their hands - the heavy stone flies - the stone delivered stark death to a noble warrior - seize him forthwith". This, to my mind, is quite a lot to cram into less than three minutes of music - I find myself wondering if this moment or that is a whirling spear or a flying stone....? The Budapest Symphony Orchestra MAV have recorded several discs for Naxos in the past including sets of Rozsa and Zádor's music. Though I haven’t heard all of those other recordings, I certainly enjoyed their earlier Weiner disc and this new one strikes me as one of their best both in terms of technical recording and also orchestral playing. I have heard the only previous recording of the complete work on Hungaraton from the Miskolc Symphony Orchestra conducted by Laszlo Kovacs. This is just over a decade old but both the sound of the orchestra and the actual technical recording is less sophisticated than this new disc. Not that that is a wholly negative comment. The rougher edges to the Miskolc orchestra's playing occasionally give greater character and colour to this already colourful score. Try the very closing pages of the final picture; "the mother and her valiant son weep tears of joy as they are finally reunited" in both versions - the raucous brass from the earlier version making more of a "happy-ever-after" fade to black than the new disc's more refined and indeed secure performance. In both, the music teeters on the edge of a technicolour abyss but perhaps the earlier disc embraces that to greater effect.
I am glad to have this in my collection of Weiner scores and I hope that Naxos continue their exploration of this composer's work. The disc is titled Volume 2 of the complete orchestral works and my relative disappointment with this work has not dulled my enthusiasm to hear more of his music. Certainly a work to consider for those who enjoy large opulent scores packed with incident and orchestral colour, but not the composer's best work.
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