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CD Review

Zoltán Kodály

Choral Music

  • Missa brevis *
  • Jesus and the Traders
  • Evening
  • Mátra Pictures
* Niels Henrik Nielsen, organ
Danish National Radio Choir/Stefan Parkman
Chandos CHAN9754 53:39
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Danish strudel.

For most of his life, Kodály was known as Hungary's second greatest modern composer, after Bartók. Since his death, he's probably slipped into third place, after Ligeti. The big instrumental pieces seem to go soft in the center - the symphony, Summer Evening, the concerto for orchestra - or never reach for anything beyond entertaining - the Peacock Variations and the two main suites of orchestral dances. And yet, certain pieces in his catalogue absolutely astonish you with their power, not the least because the "comfortable" part of his output lulls you into not expecting it. The sonata for solo cello is probably the best in its genre since Bach. The only other modern pieces of its type I know at the same level are the Bartók sonata for solo violin and the two Bloch suites (again for solo violin). The same goes for Kodály's duo for violin and cello, to a slightly lesser extent, the sonata for cello and piano, the Budavari Te Deum and Psalmus Hungaricus, and not least a tremendous body of a cappella choral music. Along with Poulenc, Schoenberg, Ives, Britten, Distler, Vaughan Williams, and Holst, it ranks among the best of the century.

I first encountered Kodály through my public-high-school choir - a group able to get through (I won't say "triumph") the Poulenc Gloria in the year it came out. The Kodály piece, "Old People," we sung in English rather than in the original Hungarian, and it immediately impressed me not only by its beauty, but through its range of technical challenges to the choir - from quiet unison singing, to clear counterpoint, to huge, multi-part block chords - all cohering within a lyric space. I became a fan. I found Hungaraton LPs with such luminaries as Ferencsik, Vásárhelyi, and Lehel, and, hearing the repertoire in the original language, discovered that the music mirrored the text rhythms with a fidelity that rivaled Brahms.

The Chandos CD gives us some of the best of Kodály's choral work performed by Stefan Parkman and the Danish Radio Choir, one of the finest in the world. The group specializes in "hard" music, I suspect mostly because it's run by State radio and doesn't need to depend on ticket sales for its existence. This holds true throughout Scandinavia, as a matter of fact. Consequently, the Scandinavian choral standard is among the highest in the world, and composers write up, rather than down, to it. Much of Kodály's choral music nominally aims at amateurs, but the term designates a group different today from when he wrote it, at least in the United States. Most of Kodály's music lies beyond American amateur capability, mainly because schools and churches have either eliminated choirs or pursued a disastrous policy which substitutes tepid and treacly pop for some of the best music in the world.

Unlike Bartók, Kodály didn't emigrate, which put him at great risk during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. A leftist himself, whose nationalist artistic goals more or less paralleled the official Communist view of art as nation-building, he found himself the Grand Old Man of Hungarian Music, cosseted and feted by the postwar regimes. At any rate, much of his activity he directed toward music education in the schools. He developed an extensive pedagogical method, created the repertoire to fuel it, and received the full backing of the State. As a result, Hungarian school choirs could handle music of just about any level of difficulty. I have no idea what might have happened to them under present-day "goulash capitalism."

The works here would challenge anybody, including thorough professionals like Parkman and his Danes. Missa brevis poses mainly harmonic hurdles, imposing even with the support of an accompanying organ. The scales are strange (probably based on Hungarian folk modes). There's an archaic air to the mass, even with its mostly post-Impressionist harmonies, from the canonic chanting of the "Kyrie" to the interplay of choir and organ in the "Gloria," which reminds me a bit of old 18th-century Czech folk masses. I've several recordings of the work, including one (in its orchestral dress) led by Ferencsik with an all-Hungarian ensemble, but I've never heard a better chorus than this - a preternaturally clean sound, no fuzz in the chords, and everything so excitingly in tune, you begin to hear bass fundamentals that aren't written in, all through the magic of physics. The performance itself kicks butt, especially in the two most interpretively difficult movements - the "Credo" and the "Agnus Dei," long spans of music whose architecture Parkman makes crystal clear. It's also obvious that Parkman naturally thinks in large spans, to the advantage of a musical work structured cyclically. Fragments of the "Kyrie" and "Gloria," for example, reappear in the "Agnus Dei," and ideas from the "Credo" show up in the "Ite, missa est," among other things. He creates the feeling of joining the separate movements together into one whole. This happens most noticeably in the "Sanctus" and "Benedictus," so that the second "Hosanna" for once does come through as a commentary on the first.

Jézus és a kufárok (Jesus and the Traders), a pillar of 20th-century a cappella choral music, tells the familiar story of Jesus and the money-changers. In addition to the harmonic complexity of the work - indeed, this is Kodály at his furthest out (not all that far; it's still strongly tonal) - there is a killer fugato as well as passages of rapid close canon, and the choir must sort it all out by itself. I've heard lots of performances, some by very good choirs indeed, but I've not heard anyone but Parkman bring out the essential roughness of the fugue while keeping the clarity of each part. If I hadn't heard it, I wouldn't have suspected it could be done. Furthermore, unisons are true unisons. There's absolutely no detectable variance in pitch from one singer to the other - so little, in fact, that one has a great deal of trouble telling how many singers might be sounding at any one time. Parkman and his ensemble raise the bar.

Much of Kodály's output sets individual lyric poems and lies strongly in the tradition of Romantic secular choral music by such lights as Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Evening is a gorgeous piece and, according to the liner notes, his earliest, dating from 1904. The wonder, peace, and richness of the night sky, the vastness of the Hungarian plain, are all here. It moves mainly by chords, but what chords! And the Danes are so in tune, that they bring off the magic in the work, despite their relatively lo-cal sound.

By the time of the Mátra Pictures (1931, and another 20th-century choral classic), Kodály has refined his writing, and his idiom has turned into a sophisticated evocation of folk music, much like, say, George Butterworth in England. Folk music teaches him (as it does Bartók) a greater economy with notes and a more truly contrapuntal approach to music. The counterpoint, however, is highly individual, rather than what one learns in a class - the juxtaposition of independent melodies, rather than the rhythmic displacement and insertion of passing-notes between the constituents of chords. In the Mátra Pictures, the counterpoint sounds like folk descants, although one can't easily imagine folk musicians pulling off Kodály. Parkman turns in a very suave - in places overly so - performance which succeeds on its own terms. Nevertheless, if you can find Vásárhelyi on Hungaraton, I think you'll hear something earthier and closer to the composer.

All in all, however, a superb disc. Chandos engineers have provided a bright acoustic without sacrificing the crispness of the choral sound.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz