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Roland SZENTPÁLI (b.1977)
Tuba Concerto (2002) [19:56]
Rhapsody (2007-12) [14:33]
Three Dances: Version for saxophone, saxhorn and symphonic band (2007) [17:56]
Roland Szentpáli (bass tuba & bass saxhorn), Bence Szepesi (clarinet, soprano saxophone & tarogato)
Győr Symphonic Band / László Marosi
Premiere recordings (Rhapsody, Dances)
rec. October 2014, Concert Hall, University of Győr, Hungary.

I first encountered the name of Roland Szentpáli a couple of years ago, when I found myself sitting at a table in the bar with a tuba player after a brass band concert. In the course of a conversation about our musical tastes and musicians we admired, the aforementioned tubaist waxed lyrical about the playing of a Hungarian whose name I had to ask him to write down for me, since I suspected that he, like me, was not likely to pronounce a Hungarian name with sufficient accuracy for me to get the spelling right! In the few days after that I tracked down, online, some performances by Szentpáli and was suitably impressed. It was only more recently that I discovered that Szentpáli was also a composer – a discovery which prompted the wish to review this disc from the ever-enterprising company Toccata Classics.

Szentpáli was born in Nyíregyháza in north-eastern Hungary, quite close to the borders with Romania and Ukraine. By his early teens he was playing baritone horn and tuba, choosing to specialise in the second of these two instruments. He studied at the Béla Bartók Academy in Budapest between 1991 and 1995 and then continued his studies at The Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music. He has won many prizes as a tuba player and is principal tuba of the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra. He has often played in jazz and Latin contexts too, as on the 2015 album, Nuestro Ritmo with pianist Richard Révész (Potenza Music).

Most of Szentpáli’s compositions are for tuba (or other brass instruments such as the horn, euphonium and trumpet) with piano, chamber ensemble, orchestra or wind band/brass band, though he has also written for cello, saxophone and flute.

On this disc we are presented with three ‘concertos’ (only one of which actually has the word ‘concerto’ in its title). I have enjoyed all three of these works. Szentpáli’s virtuosity and flair as a performer are deeply impressive in the Tuba Concerto, but his skill as a composer is also very evident. The Rhapsody (like the Tuba Concerto) is much inspired by Hungarian folk music, both as experienced directly and as refracted through the work of composers such as Bartók, Kodály and Gyula Dávid. Here the soloist (and very fine he is) is clarinetist Bence Szepesi, who also plays soprano saxophone and táragató (a wooden, single-reed folk instrument – I recall hearing Evan Parker, the English free-jazz saxophonist, playing it on occasion). The Three Dances owe more to Balkan and Turkish music and the results are both richly coloured and rhythmically urgent. (The exotic image on the cover of the published score doesn’t seem altogether inappropriate. Originally written for two tubas and big band, the work is here played by Szentpáli (bass saxhorn) and Szepesi (soprano saxophone) with a symphonic band.

The three movements of the Tuba Concerto carry the titles ‘Ritual’, Dirge’ and ‘Rhymes’. The booklet notes by the composer are thorough and helpful. In them, we are told that “before [he] started to play music, [Szentpáli] wanted to be an anthropologist” and remained fascinated by ancient forms of human society. Here, in the first movement “the tuba soloist is the leader, the táltos [a figure in Hungarian folklore like the shaman] or shaman of the group”. The music imagines a group of people gathered around the táltos to pray to the gods. The táltos plays his drum to induce a trance, in which those around him rise and dance an unsophisticated dance, rhythmically and metrically unbalanced”. Szentpáli writes that he “wanted to create melodic lines that sound as if they were ‘out of tune’ and imitate the sounds of untuned, ancient instruments”. The almost nine minutes of ‘Ritual’ are packed with musical incident, with powerful rhythms and unexpected sonorities. This is vividly evocative music, with some astute dynamic shading and some remarkable climaxes. In some ways it reminds one of The Rite of Spring (though it is finally less ‘fierce’ than that work), or of other famous Russian dances, such as some of the Polovtsian dances from Prince Igor, or some of Prokofiev’s dance movements. But it is essentially distinct from all of these, in terms both of its instrumentation, with its use of the tuba and the symphonic band rather than the Symphony Orchestra and in the fact that its idioms are essentially Hungarian (so that one might also think of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin or of Kodály’s ‘Napóleon csatája’ as antecedents) rather than Russian. This movement is a spectacular and memorable piece. I would love to hear it played live – though bringing together a soloist, band and conductor of this quality would be no easy task. The temperature, but not the emotional content, drops a little in the second and third movements of the concerto. ‘Dirge’ was written soon after the composer learned of the death of the grandfather he had known best and to whom he was especially close. The mood here is nostalgic and thoroughly affectionate, shot through with the sense of loss, but not without an element of celebration. ‘Rhymes’ is built around related memories, as Szentpáli looks back on carefree summer holidays spent in the village where his grandfather lived – Máriapócs, not far from Nyíregyháza. Children’s games and wanderings are touchingly evoked in this experienced account of innocence. Taken whole, this Tuba Concerto is an assured and powerful work, emotional yet disciplined. My liking for it has grown with each hearing.

The composition of Rhapsody began in 2007, when Szentpáli was guest principal tuba with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. The composer writes that, though he had “a fantastic time” in Hong Kong, he was also “seriously homesick”. That longing for his homeland prompted extensive use of Hungarian folk materials and idioms in the piece. The composition was left unfinished until 2012. It opens with a superb clarinet cadenza, before the “rhythmic drive” of the piece is “set up … on a pair of spoons and a metal water can”, to quote Szentpáli’s notes again. The work largely eschews ‘classical’ thematic development in favour of what Szentpáli calls “written improvisations”. Of the second section of Rhapsody, Szentpáli writes that it “is based on my favourite folksong from Szatmár-Bereg Megye (the county in eastern Hungary where I was born): ‘Felülről fúj az őszo szél’ (‘The autumn wind is blowing from above’) … Here again I did something unusual. The solo instrument never plays the main melody. The chord progression of the melody drives through the movement”. The result is intriguing and, yes, “unusual”. During this section Szepesi plays the táragató. He switches to the soprano saxophone in the closing section of Rhapsody, in which what Szentpáli calls the “major material” frames another written improvisation played by the soloist. Though I don’t find Rhapsody quite as exciting or gripping as the Tuba Concerto, it is certainly a distinctive and rewarding piece.

Three Dances was originally written in 2017, commissioned by Portuguese tubaist Sérgio Carolino, for two tubas and big band. In planning this CD Szentpáli chose to make a new version of the work as a double concerto for bass saxhorn, soprano saxophone and symphonic band. The three dances – ‘Blow on Fire’, ‘Oriental Flavours’ and ‘Cinder Dance’ – are rhythmically complex and exciting. Again, it is worth quoting Szentpáli’s notes which describe how, in ‘Blow on Fire’, “the ostinato material … is the main theme. On top of (not after) the main theme, the second theme sounds as contrasting material.” These two themes go on to dominate most of the piece; “they are interrupted only once, with a virtuoso orchestral section, before the recapitualation.” ‘Blow on Fire’ ends with a double cadenza. Like its two successors, in listening to ‘Blow on Fire’ one can choose either just to abandon oneself to the rhythms and stop thinking, or trace the structural complexities. Being a bear of little brain, I haven’t yet been able to do the two things simultaneously. ‘Oriental Flavours’ is, in essence simpler. It is a dance in 9/4 “where the rhythmical pulsation turns around all the time”. Though that may make it sound like demanding listening, I haven’t found it so, in part because the chief melody is pretty simple and the passionately sensual mood is essentially unchanging throughout. ‘Cinder Dance’ is rhythmically complex, even by Szentpáli’s standards. To quote his notes for the last time; “The main theme is again very simple, but still very challenging because of its rhythms. It is followed by written-out improvisations and orchestral intermezzo. It’s a challenge for the conductor as well, because of the odd pulsation of 9/4 in the second movement [section would surely be a better word here, since the piece is played without a break and the 7/8 + 7/8 + 7/8 + 2/4 rhythms in the last movement [section]. The piece, in short, is a real blast.” I am happy, as a listener, to agree with that last observation. But I would be alarmed had I to play any part in a performance of ‘Cinder Dance’!

I have relished all the music on this disc and I feel sure that many readers of MusicWeb would do so too. It helps if you have some familiarity with jazz and eastern European music as well as with the classical tradition. But relax, without worrying about how it’s all ‘made’ and it is, indeed, “a blast”.

Glyn Pursglove

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