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Eugene ZÁDOR (1894-1977)
Tarantella-Scherzo (1942) [8:34]
Music for Clarinet and Strings (1970) [13:47]
Trombone Concerto (1966) [14:12]
In Memoriam (1962) [5:47]
Sinfonia Technica (1931) [27:42]
Pál Sólyomi (clarinet)
András Fejér (trombone)
Budapest Symphony Orchestra MAV/Mariusz Smolij
rec. 2018, Hungaroton Studios, Budapest, Hungary
NAXOS 8.574108 [70:27]

On receiving this disc, the sixth in Naxos’s ongoing Eugene Zádor series, I paid a visit to the excellent website dedicated to the composer. Among other things, I was amazed to discover that he was a good friend of the novelist Thomas Mann (who was a godparent to Zador’s son) and that for a decade he taught composition to the Hollywood legend Lionel Barrymore. I’ve tried a couple of these discs in the past: 8.572548 featured A Childrens’ Symphony and the Five Contrasts among other works (review) while the Oboe Concerto and the Five Studies (apparently Zador’s favourite of his own orchestral works) were included on 8.572549 (review). Both these discs are replete with pieces whose solid architecture and technical proficiency are quite beyond doubt. Unfortunately the music itself lacks a really distinctive profile and to my ears at least has proved to be defiantly unmemorable.

Although these criticisms can also be applied in general terms to the material here, I found this release provided a more satisfying experience than those earlier issues. The playing of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV is more accomplished for one thing, whilst the recording lacks the dryness of its predecessors. Frankly I found the two pieces involving soloists to be worthy but rather dull. Zádor was most sympathetic to those instruments he regarded as “underprivleged” and composed concertante pieces for accordion, double-bass and cimbalom among others. The Trombone Concerto opens with a rather leaden, strophic theme which develops along rather predictable lines. If the orchestration is conventional it’s not unattractive. The gently rocking tune of the central Allegretto recalls Kodály, but on the whole the panel is a bit static and somewhat untaxing for both listener and soloist. The finale is livelier and flecked with dance lightness and tangy piano and xylophone colorations, but while the solo writing suits the instrument it rarely challenges the performer. It must go down as one of the least virtuosic concerti I’ve ever heard. András Fejér does what he can with a piece which has a stolid, gebrauchmusik feel.

The same applies to the unfussily titled Music for Clarinet and Strings. The interplay between soloist and orchestra is evensong autumnal at the outer edges of the first movement although its centre is contrastingly puckish and angular. The brief central movement is efficiently made but blunt in impact. The Alla zingaresca typifies what Zádor does best – smoky paprika dappled Hungariana led by a piper, with lovely swirling string textures at its core. There is a momentarily wistful diversion before its cool Bartókian conclusion. It’s not quite sufficient to save the piece.

In memoriam is again competently constructed and seems sincere in tone. An ascending four-note wedge-shaped motif hints at something heartfelt, the second idea is a stately trombone melody over a gently tolling accompaniment. Its reined-in romanticism and sepulchral brass choirs seem perched somewhere between Reger (one of Zádor’s teachers) and Bartók. It subsides amid low strings.

The most striking moment on the disc occurs right at its outset with the garish, Hollywood-velvet opening gesture of the Tarentella-Scherzo from 1942, a date which tellingly coincides with Zádor’s entrée into the movie world as his younger compatriot Miklós Rózsa’s (often uncredited) assistant. Here a characteristically Hungarian tune is given an Italian makeover. There’s lusty bassoon writing (another underprivileged instrument) and the piece conveys a jolly rustic countenance. It’s given with plenty of vigour and engagement by the Budapest players. The central section involves a hazy expansion of the theme for clarinet, and a schmaltzy string tune. Zádor’s orchestration is very impressive, with especially colourful brass. The modulations at the end are unexpected and work rather well. The Tarentella-Scherzo occupies the crossroads between its composer’s Hungarian heritage, his Vienna-based training and his future direction.

Eleven years previously Zádor was still seeking a personal musical language. It’s ironic then that the piece of his I have by far enjoyed the most (to date) is his 1931 Sinfonia Technica which blends ingredients which might seem incompatible on paper; Regerian rigour and momentum, a Magyar melodic sense which owes much to both Bartók and Kodály, and an aesthetic based on Russian constructivism that’s never quite as savage or mechanistic as its source. Frank DeWald even argues pertinently in his note that “…..the genre’s hard-edged angularity is softened by a bit of Respighian impressionism.” The movements’ titles each refer to structures which are central to ‘industry’. The first of these, The Bridge projects a dissonance which is certainly of its time but rather unusual in the context of Zádor’s later work. The metallic piano and grandiose brass suggest heavy industry, the textures tempered by lusher reflections in harp and strings. The orchestra admittedly sound a tad underpowered here. One could certainly imagine this music alongside contemporary documentary footage. In Telegraph Pole ethereal strings convey the invisible but essential force of electricity before creepier motifs meld with woodwind and pentatonic piano figures. In the Scherzo movement labelled Waterworks the rhythmic ostinati project a more literal sonic representation of mechanisation that’s occasionally redolent of Mosolov or Pas d’acier-era Prokofiev while the concluding panel Factory is most atmospheric; sleepy clarinets anticipate the day ahead while distant muted horns call the faithful to work. Zádor then unleashes a sequence of machine-inspired orchestral activity suggesting the urgency of heavy manufacture. Hints of factory whistles compete for attention alongside folky pentatonicisms. The brass writing is certainly reminiscent of Bartók. Whether all of this really adds up to anything substantial is quite another matter but speaking personally I’m a sucker for this kind of aesthetic – monochrome mental images of heavy-duty 1930s-style modernisation alongside not-quite-over-the-top technicolor orchestration. I’m more than happy to cut the younger Zádor some slack here.

Having arrived in America in 1942, Zádor went on to do very well for himself thanks to the Hollywood machine and managed to secure lasting financial security for his family. He certainly regarded his film work as secondary to his serious concert music, but although this was performed sporadically during his exile, it never really caught on. Another, almost completely unexplored area of his legacy is opera – he composed a dozen between 1923 and 1969 – it would certainly be interesting to hear an example. While Naxos are to be admired for their continued advocacy of this largely forgotten figure I’m afraid I find this music, for all its fleeting, superficial felicities stubbornly resistant to enduring affection. A much better bet in my view is Zádor’s contemporary László Lajtha, whose terrific cycle of nine symphonies constitutes a jewel in the Naxos catalogue.

Richard Hanlon

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