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Péter EÖTVÖS (b. 1944)
Gliding: Four Works for Symphonic Orchestra
The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies (2011) [10:38]
Jet Stream (2002) [19:45]
Alle vittime senza nome (2017) [24:17]
Dialog mit Mozart (2016) [13:07]
Hĺkan Hardenberger (trumpet) (Jet Stream)
Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Péter Eötvös
rec. live Alte Oper Frankfurt, Germany, 2017/2019

The music of enterprising Transylvanian composer Péter Eötvös is vividly original. I had the pleasure of reviewing earlier discs of his concertos for this website (review and review). On this new CD are four examples of his orchestral oeuvre, one of which (Jet Stream) is a quasi-concerto. All of these serve the listener as an excellent introduction to Eötvös’s orchestral writing and the performances are both authoritative and superbly played.

Visual metaphors, as Gergely Fazekas explains in the booklet note, are extremely important to Eötvös either interpreting a completed work in retrospect (Jet Stream) or as a spark that fires the compositional process (The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies). The latter piece was commissioned by the Basque National Orchestra and inspired by Basque folk music. It was while listening to a particular folk song that the powerful image of the eagle appeared in the composer’s imagination: “an eagle, gliding high in the skies, floating up high without moving, with its wings wide open; the glance of the eagle; the rustling of its wings in the wind; the endless space; the feeling of complete freedom.”

Eötvös clearly has a penchant for unusual, even exotic percussion which he employs extensively in his compositions. The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies is no exception, where there is a large contingent of percussion. The tamburo basco, found in Basque music, is one such instrument he uses in this work. More prominently, though, are a pair of South American cajón, a large wooden box that is struck rhythmically by the musician’s hands. These are placed on either side of the conductor near the front of the orchestra. There is a fine video of this work on YouTube, as there are of the others on this CD, with the same forces as on these recordings. Since these were recorded live, it is likely that they were taken from those concerts. The visual aspect contributes a great deal here, as one can watch the two drummers beating their cajóns throughout the piece. The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies is like a symphonic poem without a specific programme and employs the full resources of the orchestra. It begins arrestingly with volleys of the cajóns and contains folk-like themes influenced by Basque music. However, as Eötvös points out, these do not appear directly, the way they might do in Bartók or Kodály. Rather, their influence is subsumed indirectly in Eötvös’s own voice. This ten-minute work kept me riveted throughout.

Jet Stream, on the other hand, is “pervaded by the atmosphere of jazz.” Eötvös was fascinated from childhood by the world of jazz, as this music was mysterious and forbidden in Hungary when he was growing up. He was able to listen to jazz on a shortwave radio and, even with the noisy interference of the jamming transmitters, it retained its attraction to him and even now without the noise. Jet Stream is no jazz-influenced concerto like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Rather, it is just the starting point for a composition that Eötvös compares to a painting: “…horizontal stripes made with paintbrushes of varying thickness (even of several kilometres), dangerous yellow-blue-quicksilver colours, the energy of high altitude winds, current, which might be like that of a mass of Japanese people in a one-way street, where only one person (the trumpeter) is trying to go in the opposite direction. Current and Resistance…”

The solo trumpet, nevertheless, plays in a jazz style almost nonstop throughout the work and one can justifiably see it as a quasi-concerto. In addition to the soloist, there are three trumpeters who are separated and stand behind the soloist, accompanying him, “commenting” on his solos, and at times mimicking them. From the YouTube video it is difficult to tell which trumpet is playing when the camera is not focusing on the particular performer. Again the work is scored for a very large orchestra and has a sampler keyboard among the instrumentation. The soloist also has an extended cadenza. Eötvös composed the work for trumpeter Markus Stockhausen, son of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, with whom Eötvös played in his ensemble and who likely influenced the inclusion of the keyboard. Markus Stockhausen premiered Jet Stream, but it has since been taken up by one of the world’s most famous trumpeters, Hĺkan Hardenberger. This is his second recording of the work, which was included earlier on a DG disc with trumpet pieces by Gruber and Turnage (review). I found the work rather seductive, but a bit long-winded. Watching it on the video adds a whole other dimension and there it does not wear out its welcome.

Eötvös refers to the longest and most recent work here, Alle vittime senza nome (To the Nameless Victims), as a requiem. It is no consolatory piece, but a requiem of desperation. The composer describes the work’s conception, thus: “My work is written to the memory of the Arab and African people who against their own wishes scrambled aboard overcrowded ships in the hope of arriving in a happier world, but before reaching the Italian coast they sank in the open sea.” He saw sharp images not only of individual refugees, but also of “dense crowds of humanity,” who were placed together on the unseaworthy vessels.

Alle vittime senza nome is divided into three parts, each appreciably longer than the last, and scored for a large orchestra with a huge battery of percussion. Individual refugees are depicted by solo instruments, most notably violin and viola. The violin solo in the first part is really haunting. These solos contrast with the heavy blocks of sound in the orchestral tuttis. The brass have a field day and so does the percussion with extensive parts for cowbells. There are also solos for clarinet, alto saxophone, and bassoon. The contrast between the quiet, even meditative solos and the tutti sections is striking. The piece concludes quietly with a high, muted trumpet solo. While I could not detect any overt Arabic or African references, there is some Middle Eastern harmony and the keening viola solo near the end of the second section indeed projects a feeling of mourning. Mark Sealey praised another account of the piece last year on a Wergo CD (review). I found this the most difficult of the works on the disc to get to know, but perseverance has succeeded in my gaining appreciation and admiration for it.

Concluding the programme is the delightful Dialog mit Mozart. For me it was the easiest to enjoy from the off with its references to Mozart, its gentle humour, and virtuoso orchestration. The work is Eötvös’s orchestral transcription of da capo (mit Fragmenten aus W.A.Mozarts Fragmenten), which he composed in 2014 for cimbalom, marimba, and chamber ensemble. The orchestral version was commissioned by the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg in celebration of its 175th anniversary. It is based on nine Mozart manuscript fragments found in the archive at the Salzburg Mozarteum. Eötvös took these tunes and, while identifiable as Mozart’s, developed and transformed them into something of his own in a sort of concerto grosso. The piece begins with an accessible theme on the bass trombone and woodwinds with percussion accompaniment and proceeds like a concerto for orchestra with memorable solos and dazzling orchestration. A violin solo repeated by violin, viola, cello, and double bass lead to others by brass and winds. Mallet percussion are naturally prominent and there is a Mozartian string quartet theme followed by a brass chorale. Later a beautiful cello solo demonstrates the ingenious blending of Mozart and Eötvös. Dialog mit Mozart concludes with a catchy, jovial march, including trumpet riffs, and a quite humorous, jazzy dance accompanied by a percussionist playing bongos with drumsticks. This piece is all great fun, but brilliantly composed in every respect.

Overall, the disc provides as good an introduction to Eötvös’s orchestral music as any. The performances are terrific and the sound state-of-the-art. Budapest Music Center Records earns high marks on its physical product, as well. A thin cardboard bi-fold album with slots for the booklet and CD is attractively designed and the notes are more than adequate. A further benefit would have been a listing of the instrumentation for each work, but that can be found on the internet, and there is no listing of the separately tracked sections of Alle vittime senza nome. While just listening to these works provides much pleasure, I encourage anyone interested in them to also watch the videos on YouTube.

Leslie Wright

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