March 01, 2018


Kodály: Orchestral Music—Dances of Galánta; Concerto for Orchestra; Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, “The Peacock”; Dances of Marosszék. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.

Kodály: Orchestral Music—Háry János Suite; Dances of Galánta; Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, “The Peacock”; Psalmus Hungaricus; Dances of Marosszék; Dances of Galánta (separate performance). Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ádám Fischer; Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer. Brilliant Classics. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 3 (“Sinfonia espansiva”) and 4 (“The Inextinguishable”). Seattle Symphony conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.

     Less prolific than his friend and countryman Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály produced a small but highly colorful group of orchestral works that, it turns out, are subject to a wide variety of interpretations that are all, in different ways, revelatory. So steeped in Hungarian history are Kodály’s works, and so revelatory of aspects of that history – he actually used music to illuminate his country’s past and that of other nearby nations – that it is scarcely surprising when orchestras based in Hungary play Kodály with a sound that seems to fit every interstice of his music perfectly. What is far more unexpected is that an orchestra such as the Buffalo Philharmonic, under JoAnn Falletta, can give such a strong account of Kodály’s works as the one heard on a new Naxos CD. Falletta tunes into the rhythmic contrasts of Kodály’s music with particular skill, and this serves especially well in the two dance sets, from Galánta and Marosszék: the orchestra follows her lead unerringly and the dances accordingly lounge, perk, sway, swerve and bounce as they should. While it is true that the Buffalo Philharmonic lacks the exceptionally warm string tone characteristic of Hungarian and other Central European orchestras, and has a brass section that is somewhat brighter and less mellow, it is also true that the ensemble’s precision in this music gives it a crispness that nicely complements the warmth inherent in Kodály’s instrumentation. And the players, individually and collectively, are amply virtuosic, as is particularly evident in the Concerto for Orchestra, so much less frequently heard than the similarly titled one by Bartók. Kodály’s does not have the overarching program and careful juxtaposition of moods that Bartók’s work possesses, but it certainly demands first-rate ensemble playing along with a high level of individual skill, and it gets all of that from the Buffalonians. They also handle the longest work here, Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, “The Peacock,” with considerable élan. This is a structurally intricate set of variations, the first eight flickering by in less than a minute apiece and leading to a second set of eight in which several are more substantial, handling the simple theme at greater length and with more expressivity. Falletta balances the elements of the work very well, and if there is something a bit studied rather than instinctive in her interpretation, that is of small account in light of the fine playing and sure rhythmic sense.

     The same variations are heard somewhat more expansively and warmly on the first CD of a two-disc set from Brilliant Classics – a re-release of recordings made in 1990. The first disc features the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ádám Fischer, a rather fussy conductor whose orchestra plays Kodály’s works with casual perfection when Fischer is not trying to force the music to expand or contract a bit too much. Fischer is clearly aiming for additional breadth and more-pointed transitions between sections, but he tends to interfere with the forward propulsiveness of the material. This is actually not a major issue in the Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, whose clearly delineated multiple elements provide plenty of opportunities for contrast among themselves. But it is somewhat irritating in the Háry János Suite, a marvel of comic effectiveness – with contrasting periods of lyrical folksiness – that here seems a touch too staid and does not flow quite as well as it can, especially in the sections called “Song” and “Intermezzo.” On the other hand, the orchestral playing is so fine and so pointedly on-target that the times when Fischer tries a little too hard are by and large minor impediments to enjoyment of the music. And Fischer’s version of the Galánta dances is first-rate, with plenty of spark and enthusiasm contrasting with sections of well-modulated lyrical flow. For that matter, another version of the Galánta dances, by another Fischer – Iván – is also excellent, paced more quickly than those of Falletta and Ádám Fischer and featuring an especially rousing conclusion. Iván Fischer is particularly attuned to the rhythmic and expressive nuances of these dances, and while he leads them, all in all, rather quickly, there is no specific place to which one can point as being fast, much less rushed. Instead there is an underlying pulse of somewhat greater speed, one that propels the music forward effectively while still giving its slower sections time to breathe. Iván Fischer approaches the Marosszék dances similarly, producing a performance that on the one hand is quicker than Falletta’s and on the other offers a much warmer sound throughout – the Budapest Festival Orchestra does an exceptional job of conveying the geniality and fervor of Kodály’s music. And the gem of this second re-released CD is a more-serious and still very nationalistic work, the Psalmus Hungaricus for tenor, chorus and orchestra. The text is a setting in Hungarian of a version of Psalm 55 – the CD unfortunately does not provide the words, and although it says the texts are available online at the company’s site, they are not. What is clear even without reference to the specific verbiage is the considerable emotion underlying this work, which is unusual in setting a religious text for a secular purpose (the 50th anniversary of the unification of Buda, Pest and Óbuda into Budapest). Tenor András Molnár, the Hungarian State Chorus and the Bartók Béla Children’s Chorus of Györ all sing with emotional strength and verbal clarity in a performance led with stylistic assurance and obvious appreciation of what makes the music of Kodály so special not only in his homeland but also worldwide.

     Another composer with a strong nationalistic streak that nevertheless communicates well internationally when his works are performed with care and sensitivity is Carl Nielsen, whose six symphonies are being performed and recorded over time by the Seattle Symphony under Thomas Dausgaard. The first CD, released on the orchestra’s own label, contains the middle symphonies, Nos. 3 and 4 – a rather odd way to approach the cycle for listeners not already familiar with these works, but a perfectly acceptable one for people who know them already. One way to look at Nielsen’s symphonies is to see them in two parts, the first three essentially optimistic in their exploration of the human condition and human character, the second three increasingly dark and ultimately ending in a cynicism that goes beyond pessimism. That makes Nos. 3 and 4 transitional works, and Dausgaard’s readings handle them that way. No. 3, recorded live in June 2017, comes across somewhat better here. Dausgaard takes the label “Espansiva” at face value and gives the symphony plenty of opportunity to breathe, with the first movement (from which the work draws its title) and the second (which features a vocalise by soprano [Estelí Gomez] and baritone [John Taylor]) coming across particularly well. The pairing of third and fourth movements is harder to bring off successfully, the exuberance of the third often leading to a letdown feeling in the rather foursquare finale. Dausgaard does not quite make this work: the last movement tends to plod a bit. But the Seattle Symphony plays the music exceptionally well, and Nielsen’s many intricacies and interesting orchestral colorations come through quite effectively. Symphony No. 4, a live recording from November 2015, is equally well played but not as convincing interpretatively. A long single movement, this symphony struggles throughout to identify the human characteristics that are inextinguishable (it is a work of World War I), eventually winning through to a hard-fought triumphal peace that turns out to be, as will be discovered from the perspective of the last two symphonies, both fragile and facile. The symphony does fall musically into four sections that are in effect separate movements despite being played nonstop, but it works best when its emotional heft is carried through from start to finish – somewhat along the lines of Schumann’s Symphony No. 4. Dausgaard has a clear understanding of the music and, as in the Third, does an excellent job of highlighting the many felicities of construction and instrumentation here. What is missing is a sense of the intensity of the start-to-finish struggle that eventually brings the music through darkness into light (or at least twilight). The performance works very well musically but somewhat less well emotionally. It is nevertheless a very fine reading, and the disc as a whole makes the anticipation of the remainder of Dausgaard’s Nielsen cycle a very pleasant one.

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