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Sándor BALASSA (b. 1935)
Complete Piano Music - Volume 3
Kicsi a bors... (Peppercorns are Small) - Six Bagatelles, Op 106 (2008) [12:24]
Északi ajándék (A Gift from the North, for harp – version for piano) Op. 139 (2015) [8:12]
Könnyű zongoradarab (12 Easy Piano Pieces) Op. 123 (2011) [25:00]
Hajta virágai (Flowers from the Hajta, for cimbalom – version for piano) Op. 38 (1984) [6:03]
Rondo, Op 145 (2018) [2:33]
Fantázia, Op. 97 (2006) [9:08]
István Kassai (piano)
rec 2017/18, Hungaroton Rottenbiller Street Studio, Budapest
GRAND PIANO GP805 [63:34]

Over the past 30 years or so Budapest-born Sándor Balassa has been championed by the Hungaroton label and scanning local broadcast and concert listings he must be one of the most frequently performed living Hungarian composers. Yet Balassa seems to be virtually unknown outside his own land. I’ve listened to a fair bit of his orchestral music over the years; I recall being especially taken by a Double Concerto for oboe and horn which stuck in the memory not least for its unusual pairing of solo instruments; on the other hand there are many pieces based on local legends, occasional pieces as well as standard concert fare which on the face of it seem colourful and well-made, but as Bob Briggs suggested in this review from a decade or so ago, their evocative titles often promise more than they deliver.

It’s the first time I’ve heard any of Balassa’s piano music (this is the third volume of Grand Piano’s series- its predecessors are on GP 803 and GP 804) and all bar one of these items have emerged in the last fifteen years. The two cycles on the new disc are pedagogical in intent; these are separated by arrangements of pieces the composer originally devised for harp and cimbalom respectively. The last two pieces are in more traditional forms. The first item, Kicsi a bors (Peppercorns are Small) is a sequence of six bagatelles (without descriptive titles) specifically written for the most talented junior students at the Liszt Academy. While it’s perhaps possible to detect that they are from somewhere in Eastern Europe, it’s less easy to narrow them down to Hungary. Numbers 2, 4 and 6 are faster and make for agreeable listening. The second toccata-like piece marked Allegro assai requires nimble fingers and sounds rather Prokofievian, whilst the fourth is a testing neo-classical workout. The odd-numbered movements may work well as training items but they are unrewarding for the general listener. The Twelve Easy Piano Pieces date from five years later. The pianist István Kassai describes them as “moderately difficult” rather than easy in his detailed note, and whilst some seem more characterful than those in the previous cycle, others are rather arid. Their pedagogic function is clear. Highlights include a pithy street portrait (Little Urchin), a sporadically ethereal astronomical study (Hubble’s Gift) and a couple of impressionistic ruminations (Frost Patterns, Dream) To his credit Kassai treats each miniature as plausible recital material and projects them in the best possible light; he’s also very well recorded.

Of the ‘grown-up’ music each of the two piano transcriptions have a tripartite form. Északi ajándék (A Gift from the North) was originally a sonatina-like piece for harp inspired by a trip the composer made to Latvia before that country achieved its independence. A pretty Andantino with a touching secondary idea and a songful Lento which incorporates a more chipper second half surround an agile study which I imagine would sound more distinctive in its original harp form, although the whole doesn’t sound ineffective on a piano. I suspect listeners will struggle to make a Baltic connection though. The cimbalom piece Hajta virágai (Flowers from the Hajta) is the earliest music on this disc, in another piano arrangement. The brief introduction could almost be by another composer, its angularity is unlike anything else in this recital. The two longer Rondo movements that follow are not quite as extreme. The first incorporates a mild, spare modernity which morphs into a brief, folksy idea. The second is swifter, its scattergun progress displaying rhythmic patterns that Prokofiev might have recognised, although without the Russian master’s melodic fecundity. Hajta virágai is certainly an attractive little piece, a convincing marriage of established keyboard strategies with more contemporary tendencies. Listeners will doubtless be left wondering what it sounds like on a cimbalom.

Two bespoke piano movements conclude the disc: a brief Rondo which is of very recent provenance and a more substantial Fantázia from 2006 which Kassai states is Balassa’s favourite among his piano works. The Rondo is a revision of an earlier piece that was conceived specifically for this issue. Couperin is suggested as a model – and indeed listeners familiar with Ravel’s Tombeau may well perceive the presence of the baroque master in this elegant miniature. And elegant is a good description of the Fantázia. In this more substantial panel a rather sad descending tune recurs throughout, its reiterations connected by seemingly disparate motifs and materials. Kassai’s note refers to the composer’s perception of the piece as a kind of diary which enables the writer to relive events as they encounter them, but to repress them once the book is shut. There is an authentic if elusive depth to the Fantázia which is played with great sincerity and tact.

I have made the point with previous discs on Grand Piano that while the label is providing an invaluable service to enthusiasts and academics alike by recording the complete piano editions of any number of lesser-known composers, the individual programmes of some of the discs lack an element of variety and interest, and that’s my abiding impression of this release. Having said that Kassai proves an amiable and sincere guide to the music of his compatriot, and the Grand Piano recording is very fine.

Richard Hanlon

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