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Hyperion Records

CDA67999 - Kodály: String Quartets, Intermezzo & Gavotte
In the Park (2008) by Márta Mártonfi-Benke (b1958)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: February 2013
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: February 2014
DISCID: 890F9909
Total duration: 66 minutes 34 seconds


'Kodály’s two string quartets tend to linger under the shadow of the mighty ‘six pack’ that his compatriot Bartók wrote over a period of some 30 years … but they deserve more attention than they’ve so far received … the two shorter works make for attractive makeweights … as to rival versions of the quartets, the gutsy Kontra Quartet (BIS) offer fine readings of both quartets but suffer from an excessively resonant recording; the Kodály Quartet (Hungaroton) are relatively underpowered, especially in the first movement of the First Quartet. Which makes this new album a secure recommendation for both works' (Gramophone) » More

'Kodály's music is invariably approachable, it is welcoming without avoiding complexity … the passion of the opening of String Quartet No 1 sets the tone, but this alternates with an almost neo-classical quality. Folksong shadows much of the work, but does not drive it … superbly played and recorded, these readings are of the highest order' (BBC Music Magazine) » More

'The Dante Quartet give us a glimpse of Kodály's rapid stylistic development in these crisply defined performances. The charming Intermezzo from 1905 shows the influence of Vienna still apparent in the young composer, but by 1908 he was finding his true voice with the pungent, folk song-inspired first quartet, played here with unapologetic vigour by the Dantes. Quartet No 2 combines the pentatonic influence of Debussy with more than a dash of Magyar pepper, the Dantes bringing the tumult of the finale to a gloriously rumbustious close.' (The Observer)

'The delicate, wistful Gavotte joins a similarly beguiling Intermezzo for string trio between Zoltán Kodály’s two string quartets, tougher nuts than either of the two miniatures and stylistically fascinating. Kodály’s studies in Paris in the early 20th century clearly rubbed off in certain similarities that the First Quartet betrays to the milieu of Debussy and Ravel, but it is Gallicism with a Hungarian accent. The Dante Quartet responds both subtly and animatedly to this piquant, passionate music, as it does in the Second Quartet, alert to its mix of astringency and lyricism' (The Daily Telegraph) » More

String Quartets, Intermezzo & Gavotte
Presto  [4'05]
Allegro  [12'27]
Allegro  [6'00]
Allegro giocoso  [6'39]

In the chamber works recorded here, spanning Kodály’s career, we can hear an unwavering desire to place genuine Hungarian folk music (rather than the ‘style hongrois’ espoused by the Strauss family and many other composers) within classical music traditions. Bartók wrote of his compatriot that ‘if I were to name the composer whose works are the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit, I would answer, Kodály’.

The Dante Quartet, winners of the BBC Music Magazine Award for their album of Franck and Fauré, respond to this music with dancing energy and folkloric simplicity.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, a style hongrois permeated classical music, finding voice in works by Haydn, Mozart, Weber, Schubert, Liszt and Brahms. The proximity of Hungary to Vienna, home to many of these figures, encouraged its conspicuousness. For German-speaking Liszt, born in the Austrian-Hungarian borderlands, the decorated melodies and rapid ‘gypsy’ figurations of the style hongrois provided a dash of paprika to his pianistic showcases, though he developed stronger emotional and political ties with the country when Emperor Franz Joseph gave him the title of Royal Hungarian Counsellor in 1871.

The establishment of a truer magyar nóta—Hungarian, not gypsy as Liszt had wrongly asserted—within a classical context was still very much in the making. Despite intense nationalistic fervour right across the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the mid- to late nineteenth century, many clung to that flashy style. Viennese operetta was particularly extravagant in its use of Hungarian tropes, both in the Golden Age, led by the Strauss family, and in the Silver Age, with natives Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán, though many of their evocations were guilty only of having a good time. But given the prominence of ‘Hungarian’ music within Jahrhundertwende café society and popular culture, this music needed a more focused redefinition if it was to thrive as a distinctively nationalistic emblem.

The men for that task were two graduates from the National Hungarian Royal Academy of Music in Budapest (which was later named after Liszt). Of the two, Béla Bartók has dominated our perception of Hungarian musical modernism, while Zoltán Kodály has been unfairly overlooked. For many years the two were inseparable, each proselytizing the other’s music, both equally committed to resuscitating their nation’s musical culture. Kodály explained that what attracted them to this often invoked but rarely explored repertoire was its ‘expressive power’, which was nonetheless ‘devoid of all sentimentality’ and the ‘superfluous ornaments’ that had characterized the ubiquitous style hongrois. ‘It is simple, sometimes primitive but never frivolous.’

This modest music was doubtless what Kodály had heard growing up in the Hungarian countryside, as he followed his father to various stationmaster posts on the extensive imperial railway system. Kodály’s father played the violin at home, while his mother sat at the piano and sang. But the ‘expressive power’ of a specifically Hungarian music entered his musical consciousness at school, when he heard his classmates chanting various folksongs. With his father’s postings to Szob in modern-day Hungary and Galanta and Nagyszombat (now Trnava), both of which have since been subsumed into Slovakia, Kodály probably heard a great variety of melodies and harmonies.

Kodály met Bartók on 8 March 1905, while working on his thesis about the strophic structure of Hungarian folksong. The two musicians had much in common: both had been taught by Hans von Koessler at the Academy—Koessler was also Kálmán’s teacher—and they had equally strong ethnomusicological interests. However, Kodály was the only one with field experience, and thus began an informal teacher-pupil relationship, which developed into a lasting and creative friendship. Bartók said of Kodály that ‘by his clear insight and sound critical sense he has been able to give, in every department of music, both invaluable advice and helpful warnings’. Towards the end of Kodály’s life, after Bartók had died in New York, he recalled that they had shared a ‘vision of an educated Hungary, reborn from the people’, and that ‘we decided to devote our lives to its realization’. Each composer never forgot the other, though posterity has been less kind to Kodály’s music. Within the chamber works performed here, spanning Kodály’s career, we can hear that determined attempt to placed genuine magyar nóta within classical music traditions, which less intrepid ears have long associated with Bartók alone.

Rather than the Hungarian heartlands, Kodály initially turned to Vienna for his musical guidance, namely the examples of the Classical masters and of Brahms. His Academy classmate Erno Dohnányi, who adopted the Germanic moniker of Ernst von Dohnányi, continued in that Brahmsian fashion. Kodály, on the hand, gradually began to assimilate the language that was the focus of his musicological work. Its presence is already palpable in his 1905 Intermezzo for string trio. A swaying accompaniment, with contrasting arco (bowed) and pizzicato (plucked) textures, and the filigree elements within the melodic line certainly evoke Kodály’s birthplace. More beguiling is the eerily hushed middle section, prophetic of the modal lyricism of his later works and even of Bartók’s ‘night music’ style. Yet despite these qualities, this charming Intermezzo keeps its harmonic footing firmly on the Austro-German side of the border.

Kodály was soon to move away from that stylistic hegemony and the results are immediately apparent in the attention-grabbing opening (Andante poco rubato) to the String Quartet No 1 in C minor, Op 2, written between 1908 and 1909. This statement of intent, led by the cello, leads to a highly discursive and intense Allegro. Although the thematic material is original, Kodály quickly noticed a resemblance to a folksong that he had collected:

So I subsequently placed the folksong as a kind of password at the beginning of the movement […] but the work itself did not originate from the song and I did not set to work with the intention of treating the folksong in sonata form, for I knew at the very outset that this is impossible.

Instead Kodály uses the material as the work’s thematic core, in a manner not dissimilar to the motto in Debussy’s 1893 String Quartet (albeit less self-evident). Kodály had visited Paris in 1907, where he studied briefly with Widor, and both Debussy’s work and Ravel’s 1903 tribute Quartet doubtless influenced the structure and sound-world of Kodály’s work. The thematic material in the first movement is shared equally between the players, though one often snatches it from another, creating a spirited sense of confrontation. This is emphasized by the spinning of individual motifs into repetitive Janácek-like ostinato figures. The intensity abates at the beginning of the second movement (Lento assai, tranquillo), though folksong clearly influences the harmonic language here, generating moments of searing intensity before they too recede. That sense of ebb and flow is particularly evident in the fugue. A pizzicato section offers a more jocular though no less contrapuntal response and then moves back to the original subject.

The Presto begins as a dance, though it too has a more sophisticated edge, with highly variegated harmonies and a melancholic trio. Counterpoint returns at the opening of the finale, as does the plangent cello, before a courtly common-time dance is treated to a sequence of variations. Closer at first to Viennese models than the Gallic style of Debussy and Ravel or the peppery tones of Kodály’s native Hungary, the variations nonetheless become more outlandish, with a final cadence that accentuates C major with a goodly dose of local colour.

After the success of the First String Quartet at Kodály’s first public concert as a composer, on 17 March 1910, he wrote his String Quartet No 2, Op 10, between 1916 and 1918, a period when hostilities cut him off from fieldwork. The piece was dedicated to the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet who had premiered its predecessor as well as giving the first Hungarian performance of the Debussy Quartet that had been its model. Debussy’s influence can still be heard within the pentatonic harmonies of the Second Quartet, though they take on even more magyar tones. Introspective at first, the opening Allegro contrasts quickfire dissonance with more elegiac passages. Again the music has a discursive quality, though a freer modality now reigns. Dance rhythms quietly try to assert themselves within the Andante, though they are stymied by more yearning tones. Finally that energy is unleashed with a pizzicato jolt at the beginning of the final movement and a helter-skelter exchange of thematic material. After a moment of unearthly pause, complete with destabilizing glissandos, Kodály ends with a wild coda.

Although he continued to write chamber music, Kodály’s focus shifted over the ensuing decades. It was therefore to Bartók that attention turned in matters of the string quartet, and the Hungarian chapter of the genre’s history is dominated by his six contributions. But in 1952, long after the premieres of revered works such as Psalmus hungaricus, Háry János and The Dances of Galánta, and the establishment of his educational philosophies, adopted internationally as the ‘Kodály Method’, the composer penned a Gavotte for three violins and cello (the third violin part is here played on the viola). Although the form and language of the work are modishly neoclassical, there is a heartfelt simplicity that is unmistakably folkloric. Little wonder Bartók said that ‘if I were to name the composer whose works are the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit, I would answer, Kodály’.

Gavin Plumley © 2014

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