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Hungaroton
Vintage Stereo Recordings
Part 1

Review By Leonard Norwitz
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  I've been away over the summer while my system was in dry dock awaiting tonearm, phono cartridge and speaker upgrades. Though that project is not entirely completed, things are sounding well enough for me to once again enjoy recorded music and share some of my adventures.

Most of my past surveys for Enjoy The Music.com® have gathered themselves around specific labels, and this one will be no exception, though the entries will be stereo instead of mono. If you are not well acquainted with Hungaroton (also called "Qualiton," just to confuse us), you've been missing out on one (or two) of the more natural-sounding sources of recorded music out there. You might think of Hungaroton as Lyrita con huevos y elegancia. This month's look at Hungary's contribution to the LP is the first of two parts.

Hungaroton quite naturally showcases their own, and so we are not surprised to find complete libraries of Bartok and Kodaly, as well as some important and less known works of Haydn and Liszt. Hungaroton features outstanding instrumental and vocal talents most Westerners have never heard of. Their 1981 recording of Madame Butterfly (in Italian, yes) won a well-deserved Grand Prix du Disque. And you could do worse than grabbing up all the recordings of the Tatrai Quartet, especially the Haydn Opp. 17, 20 and 76.

For the present issue, I shall review briefly a few of these highly recommendable recordings. But first a few words on Hungarian Labelography: As I've already noted, Hungaroton and Qualiton are interchangeable: the former name having replaced the latter in the mid-sixties. You might see both names on the jacket, or just the one. Most mono editions are Qualiton, but many Qualitons appear in stereo as well. Mono records are typically designated by the prefix LPX, stereo by SLPX. Hungaroton did not waste covers. You will often see a stereo tag affixed onto a mono LPX record jacket. Do not be alarmed — it's still the genuine article. The earliest stereos will have the word "STEREO" in red at 6:00 on a yellow label. The vinyl is heavy, as we would expect from mono LPs of the same vintage. The information on the record label itself is usually correct in this regard, but not always. When in doubt, check the lead-out area.

Program notes are usually in three languages: Hungarian, German and English (thank you), but often in a font too small to read without help (no, thank you.) Hungaroton/Qualiton mono records generally sound very full with plenty of bass and upper frequency extension. Qualitons would always be tube-cut; late 70's Hungaritons, transistor. Stereo recordings are, with few exceptions, natural and dynamic. High-quality vinyl with quiet surfaces prevail.

 

Liszt: Les jeux d'eaux á la Villa d'Este; Concert Etude No. 2 "La leggierezza"; Transcendental Etude No. 5 "La Chasse"; Mephisto Waltz No. 1; Reminiscences de Don Juan; Fantasie on two themes from The Marriage of Figaro. István Antal, piano.
Hungaroton LPX 11364

Here we have a Liszt piano recital of the familiar and less familiar by one István Antal. My anal tendency to compendia requires that I eschew recitals. I guess I don't trust the progammer to go where I might want in the course of a record; instead, a diet of etudes, mazurkas, waltzes per LP are more comfortably predictable. But because I generally pick up most everything Hungaroton, I bought this and many others like it. The record turned out to be curious but satisfying: one side comprised of recognizable Liszt bits: two etudes, a Mephisto waltz, and a piece from one of the Années de Pelerinage. On the other, two works derived from Mozart operas. Performed back to back as we experience them on the record, the Mozart pieces sound like one extended work. In a way, this is true for the LP as a whole.

István Antal (I admit I am suspicious of people with two first names) plays all the pieces with a luxuriant flair. Never over the top, but then never incendiary either, Antal addresses the poetry of this music rather than its — and therefore his — explicit technique. This sensibility works especially well in the two Mozart pieces — despite that the Fantasie was "completed and published" by Busoni, whom we'd expect to bowl us over with the impossible. The lyricism of the original operas sings through at all times, surprisingly so considering that the piano is inherently incapable of producing a true legato.

I wasn't able to learn much about the artist except that he was a professor of music at the Budapest Academy of Music in the 1950s and established his reputation as an interpreter of Liszt and Beethoven. Compared to a keyboard giant like György Cziffra, Mr. Antal may not display the most prodigious technique. On the other hand, there are no wincing moments in this recital--and there's something to be gained by the assurance of complete takes. I realize this seems a lukewarm endorsement, but the contrary is actually the case. It's nice to hear Liszt played with grace for a change.

My copy is stereo and marked as such on the cover and label, despite the LPX catalogue number.

 

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Performance

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László Szendrey-Karper, guitar recital: music of Bach, Villa-Lobos, Terzi, Tarrega, Vińas and de Falla.
Qualiton LPX 1161

This is one of those LPs whose recorded sound is so true and engaging that the performer would have to be a dunce for us to be put off. All the same, you may wonder: Does our Hungarian get the style right? I'm not as certain as I once was what this question means, though long ago it seemed apt. I suppose it is pertinent IF the artist is trying to beat the ersatz-Latino rap. But so many prominent non-Spanish classical guitarists have enjoyed the stage since Julian Bream first walked out on it that we should now be satisfied with more probing questions, such as: What does the artist have to say on his own terms and does it connect to us, even if not through the ghost of Falla or Villa-Lobos — or Bach, for that matter?

So how does Szendrey-Karper acquit himself? Not at all badly, I'd say. A little studied, to be sure, but not so much as to make us restlessly wish for a different approach. The guitar, to an even greater degree than the piano, is not a legato instrument. So the trick is to deceive the ear into a cantabile without undermining the instrument's basic percussive plucky nature. Some of this is addressed by a properly ripe recording. In any space where the unamplified guitar can be heard as it should, the guitar is more voluptuous than is generally achieved on recordings — unless you're listening via Klipschorns. The instrument's sounding board provides just the right amount of built-in reverb, which has to be retained whilst allowing the melody to sound forth crisply.

It is in Bach's D-minor Chaconne that this question of space and melody comes to bear most exquisitely, and where the engineer brings off the truth about the guitar and what the artist reveals to us about it's capabilities and intentions. I was halfway through the LP before I suddenly remembered I was listening to a recording. That's a good sign. I know I'm not revealing very much here, nor do I particularly wish to. It's something you should discover for yourself, and I know of few recordings better able to teach the lesson.

 

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Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 1-19; Rhapsodie Espagnole.

Gábor Gabos, Erika Lux, Gabriella Torma, Erzsébet Tusa, Kornél Zempléni, piano.
Hungaroton LPX11488-90 (3 LPs)

In contrast to the lyricism and poetry of the Antal/Liszt record above, we have here essence de flamboyance: the Hungarian gypsy mode we have come to know and love. (I hope, love. It's gauche not to permit oneself to be taken in by this larger-than-life composer.) Hungaroton chose to showcase five of their most illustrious talents: men and women, young and less young; alternating roughly equally among the various pieces, but keeping to a consistent venue and recording engineer. It's interesting to try to guess who's playing what just from their technique and style. One of my favorites is Gábor Gabos playing the 12th Rhapsodie. Heavens, what a sound!

How does this set compare with others out there: Cziffra on EMI, Szídon on DG, or Campanella on Philips, to name a few? The nineteen Hungarian Rhapsodies are not a single work, nor are they sufficiently similar in style to demand a single approach. Perhaps surprisingly, and despite that the Hungaroton set employs no less than five pianists, the most varied in approach might just be Szidon. He is the only non-European amongst them, after all. Cziffra recorded them for EMI in 1975. At 54, he was already past his years of most awesome technique. The intelligence and temperament is still there, of course, with no less fire than he would have brought to bear fifteen years earlier. No. 16 is a good example. Cziffra plays this with all the dash he can muster; he's all over the keyboard like a demon, daringly changing tempos in a flash; but he tends to blur the runs a little as he would not have years earlier. Even so, the concept — the argument, if you will — is compelling, and we are left properly breathless. Szídon plays the same Rhapsodie as if it's a delicacy. Hungaroton's Zempléni shows us its magisterial implications. He even finds some mystery there, but he seems not to let go of the basic pulse. Campanella begins with a promise of toughness, but soon goes the same route as Szídon.

Of the four sets mentioned, the least good sound is the DG – thin and flat, as was often the case once they dropped the Gesellschaft. Funnily enough, one or two sides are very good: side 6, especially. The best sounding, even more surprisingly, is the Philips — with the Hungaroton coming in a close second. Edith Farnadi's recordings of the Rhapsodies, which I reviewed in my first Westminster mono survey for ETM, may actually be the best of the lot in terms of recorded sound, depending on your turntable set-up's ability to play mono records properly (even with a stereo cartridge.)

 

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Haydn: String Quartets, op. 17. Tatrai Quartet.
Qualiton LPX 11382-84 (3 LPs)

Haydn's string quartets fit neatly and conveniently one per LP side. Quite a number of them were published in sets of six – thus three LPs per opus number. There is no programmatic, technical, or other characteristic style that sets the Op. 17 from the Op. 20 or the Op. 76 (these three being the best of Haydn's six-quartet sets.) Nor is there anything remotely approaching a dud among them — far from it. Any of these opera represents the highest achievement to that point and even for some time to come, save the middle and late quartets of Beethoven and Mozart. It was no accident that Mozart dedicated a group of six quartets to Haydn, which are arguably the best of his entire output.

As good-sounding as the piano recordings in this survey are, they are bested considerably by Qualiton's efforts in these, possibly the finest quartet recordings ever produced for stereo LP. They have an immediacy and accuracy about them that clearly establish them as a benchmark. They are also unrelenting in their gaze on the performance.

On the whole, I don't believe the Op. 17 quartets are better served elsewhere, even by the excellent and more luscious Aeolian Quartet on Decca and London Treasury. I find the Tatrai's clean tone and attack and minimal vibrato perfectly suitable for Haydn. The instruments of the string quartet are capable of a seductive legato, so it is not necessary to add much vibrato unless the group lacks confidence in their intonation. On the other hand, the Tatrai does sometimes feel on the verge of falling apart, very subtly. I could use just a skosh more finesse from them. All the same, the temperament is always spot on: lyrical, yet vigorous; intelligent, yet flexible and spontaneous; and the recordings are so gorgeous as to draw us in like a Wingnut special effect.

 

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Puccini: Madame Butterfly

Veronika Kincses, sopr.; Klara Takács, alto; Peter Dvorsky, tenor; Lajos Miller, bar.; Hungarian State Opera Chorus & Orchestra, conducted by Giuseppe Patané.
Hungaroton SLPX 12256-58 (3 LPs)

Wouldn't you like to hear this endearing oft-performed opera sung by a cast other than usual suspects such as Pavarotti and Tebaldi — awesome talents though they are. A new perspective, perhaps, just for the sake of never having tried it. Or to hear what Italian sounds like in the mouths of Hungarians? I know these folk live just up the road and over the hill, but theirs is a language less in common with the language of Puccini than English. (After all, Hungarians, like the peoples of the Pacific Rim, place their family name first.) On the other hand, what a rich musical tradition middle and Eastern Europe has. We can be guaranteed sincerity and musicianship. And we get it. Of course, it can't hurt to have a Giuseppe commanding the troops.

The biggest surprise for me was the tenor. I anticipated a dark, lusty sound, but Dvorsky is light to the point of endearing. Disconcerting, that--we so want to abhor Pinkerton for his insincerity. But is he insincere? Clearly, Puccini finds him completely in love with Cio Cio San in Act 1, and very probably also in Act 2 until he finds himself another wife offstage. It is no doubt part of the seductive magic of Madame Butterfly that we do not despise Pinkerton, knowing what is to come; nor should we regret Butterfly's love, despite her being victim to a casual form of racism. It's all there in the love duet — or not, if the tenor and soprano fail to bring it off. Puccini has done his part, and so do Kincses and Dvorsky, with more than a little help from Giuseppe.

A brief note about the label: Note that the disc label is of a more modern design. The records of this vintage may be first editions, but I suspect, given the slightly thinning sound, that they are transistor cut, unlike the others under review here. The sound is transparent and textured, lacking only the last degree of finesse, body and elegance that we get from earlier recordings such as the Haydn Quartets.

 

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