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Mono Maven
Hungaroton
Part 2

Review By Leonard Norwitz
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  Continuing now with my survey of recommended Hungaroton recordings on LP.

Kodaly: Orchestral Songs: Two Songs, OP. 5; Three Songs, Op. 14; Mónár Anna, Kádár Kata. György Melis, baritone; Jósef Simándy, tenor; Márta Szirmay, alto; Orchestra of the Hungarian Radio & Televsion, György Lehel, cond.
Hungaroton LPX 11450

The name of Zoltan Kodaly is often spoken in the same breath as that of Béla Bartok.  They were colleagues and both interested in and committed to their cultural heritage, especially as it is evidenced in Magyar folk music.  Bartok strikes me as the more intellectual of the two, Kodaly the more romantic.  The most popular Kodaly composition, and one that exemplifies his folk music interest in concert form is the suite from his opera, Háry Janos, which few Westerners have ever heard in its original context.  Kodaly is well represented on LP: there is a nice set of his familiar orchestral music found across the three LPs on Decca/London conducted by Istvan Kertesz, and a fabulous Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello played by Janos Starker on Period (in glorious mono), whose status as a collectible still fetches hundreds.

Given my fondness for the orchestral songs of Mahler and Strauss, I approached the present LP with heightened anticipation.  I was not disappointed in the slightest.  Taken together, these songs are among the most romantic, exquisite and dramatic works of their kind. Approaching Winter and Cry, Cry Cry from Op. 5 are stark, luminous, magical.   The Three Songs from the Op. 14 contain the melodic and rhythmic signatures we recognize from Háry Janos. Mónár Anna, an arrangement of a Transylvanian ballad, is like a mini-opera--by turns wistful, tentative, then probing and insistent.  In it, Kodaly's orchestral palette is often curiously reminiscent of the Debussy of Pelléas et Mélisande, while at other times we hear the Slavic impulses of Rimsky-Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.  An extraordinary piece.

The performances, particularly those by Melis and Szirmay, are searching and loving.  No prima-donnas here; they could teach us westerners a thing or two about the art of singing.

The engineering is so transparent we can hear right back to the recording head.  Highly recommended.

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Dezsö Ránki & Zoltán Kocsis, piano.  Mozart: Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448; Ravel: Ma mere l'oye; Brahms: Variations on a theme of Haydn. Op. 56b.
Hungaroton SLPX 11646

Here's a program you don't come across every day.  And what's this: the oft-recorded Brahms Haydn Variations for two pianos!  Truly?  Indeed, it seems Brahms wrote both this and the famous orchestral piece more or less simultaneously, though there is evidence that the piano version may have preceded the orchestral one.  So, how does it play?  Fabulous!  No question.  Ránki & Kocsis don't make the mistake of approaching this piece as if it were a downsized version of the symphonic work, they take it on its own terms.  In their hands it's a whole new piece – which, of course, it is.

Ah, the exuberant abandon of the young!  It works for the listener when the technique is there to support it–and it is so here.  (In their photo on the record jacket, they look scarcely 20.  I calculate they were both not yet 25 at the time of this recording.)  And for all their technical wizardry, these chaps convey all the necessary lyricism of the Mozart, the ethereal magic of the Ravel, and the swaggering authority of the Brahms.

A word about the recorded sound: I'm sure readers of ETM are no strangers to the tribulations of realizing the textures onto LP of either two pianos or piano four hands (which is even more difficult.)  It turns out this is Hungaroton's strong suit: the clarification of texture without sacrificing tone or richness, especially evident in the lucid, gallant first movement of the K. 448 and the crystalline clarity demanded in the Ravel (piano four hands).

A knockout record. 

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Paul Hindemith: Cello Concerto; András Mihály: Cello Concerto. Miklós Perényi, cello; Orchestra of the Hungarian Radio & Television, Gyögy Lehel, cond.
Hungaroton LPX 11556.

You probably haven't heard much of Mr. Mihály.  Never fear.  He's quite digestible–a sort of Kodaly without the folk-trappings, or perhaps an unscholarly Bartok, either of which can only be a good thing. I rather liked it.  More lyrical than Bartok, or Hindemith for that matter, the concerto seems to be unaware of any contemporary atonal or serialist proclivities despite its having been composed mid-century.  It begins with a tentative mystery in the strings, captured with crystalline clarity by the Hungaroton engineers.  The balance between soloist and orchestra is likewise properly considered.  This piece and Perényi's effortless playing were the real finds of this record.

Hindemith is a strange bird–a kind of German Nielsen in his manful, manly temperament.  He is known for being a practical musician, in that for a time he wrote what was called Gebrauchsmusik (utility music).  He had an aversion to virtuosity for its own sake.  No Paganini, he; but then neither is he at all in the Carl Orff camp.  To the degree that this is so, it doesn't seem to hamper his vocabulary. Hindemith's music is neither simplistic nor primitive.  Most find him a little obscure;  I often do.  Certainly his music is more popular with critics and musicians than audiences in general, more respected than admired, more interesting than emotionally involving. A Hindemith work usually takes more than a couple of hearings for me to tune in to his frequency, and the Cello Concerto is no exception.  Curiously, each time I hear it, I feel that it reveals itself only as it goes along, as if the first movement will remain forever just beyond my grasp. But by the end it feels like an old friend.

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Bartok: Children's & Women's Choruses: Twenty-seven 2 and 3 part choruses, sung a capella.  Female Choir of the High School of Music, Györ; Miklos Szabó, cond.
Hungaroton LPX 1290

Each piece is over before we know it, just as we are getting into it.  Maybe there isn't enough there to warrant length and breadth, or maybe it's just that we are so unused to such brevity.  Whatever the reason, this record is worthy, not merely in order to complete the recorded Bartok oeuvre, but for the sake of the astonishing sound this chorus makes. 

We've heard something like it before from other eastern European countries – Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares for Nonesuch springs to mind.  But these little pieces have more substance, as well as the obligatory magic.  The singing in the Bartok pieces is more robust, less austere than on the Nonesuch record, with just enough more vibrato to bring the music closer to our reach.  The pieces are varied, indeed.  There's hardly a mood left unexplored.  The young singers that make up the choir sing both the women's and children's choruses in this program, providing a level of jaw-dropping dynamic contrast and musicianship that is well worth a hearing.

 

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Joseph Haydn: Flute Concerto in D Major, Hob. VII: D1; Michael Haydn: Flute Concerto in D Major.  Loránt Kovács, flute; Philharmonic Orchestra of Györ; János Sándor, conductor
Qualiton LPX 11530

I have to confess a personal disdain for the flute.  Alas, it was not always thus with me.  Through my twenties, the flute was the ultimate romantic instrument, but it eventually sort of limped out on me.  I found the instrument ultimately one-dimensional, which in a way, it is.  Expecting more, I found it wanting. 

The present record I feared would task me as Kirk did Khan.  Not only do we have the flute in the center ring, but the entire program is in the same key, and ne'er a more laid-back approach to such usually rhythmic music e're found its way to vinyl.  But I learned all over again that patience is the key to romance.  I do wonder how I lost my way in the first place.

The A side is the piece worth the price of the record, even though it was most likely written by one Leopold Hoffman and not the eminent Josef Haydn.  Haydn's younger brother Michael was indeed responsible for the B-side: a most peculiar piece in that it seems to call out for one more movement, its third movement minuet being a touch too staid to convince us as a finale.  The second movement, on the other hand, is loveliness itself.

We are offered a performance of such sweetness, without cloying or pandering, that it’s downright hypnotic, transporting. Kovács brings more emotion in his playing than Rampal even on a good day.  He eschews the pipe-like sound of Galway, and so reveals a purity of essence that quite takes the breath. It's no surprise that the cadenzas in both concertos were by the flutist and are little gems in themselves.  Sándor is the perfect partner in these concertos. Sándor, Kovács and the band from Györ bring a finesse and equanimity that rival all comers.

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Liszt: Late Piano Pieces, Vol. 2.  Ernö Szegedi, piano.
Hungaroton LPX11340

As Beethoven's late works for piano and string quartet tended toward the introspective, Liszt's late piano music was even more so, in part due to the contrast with the flamboyance of his middle years.  The pieces are often harmonically surprising and tonally ambiguous, with chords hanging over the abyss awaiting a kind of redemption; even the technically difficult pieces are remote.  It is wise not to question where we are going, but to give in to the journey.  The titles alone are unusual and strange.  Here are but half:

R.W. – Venezia

Unstern!

Csárdás Obstiné

Csárdás macabre

Nuages Gris

Sclafos! Frage und Antwort

Ernö Szegedi is one hell of a pianist, let me assure you–technically and creatively.  What expression he finds to impart in some of these deserted island pieces is something of a miracle.

The recorded piano sound is clarity itself, without sacrificing the full body and power of the instrument.  One of the best piano LP recordings I've ever heard.  Kudos Qualiton!

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Boccherini: Guitar Quintets Nos. 1-3: Haydn: Guitar Quartet in D Major.  László Szendrey Karper, guitar; Tatrai Quartet.
Qualiton LPX 11344-45 (2 LPs)

A lyrical, languorous approach to Boccherini, as if played on the hottest day of the year so as not to faint from the strain.  The mood is quite different from what I'm used to — so much so that they feel like new pieces; there is no danger of duplicating any of these titles in your collection.  Still, there is the familiar Spanish influence, reinforced and motivated by the employ of the guitar.  As I listen I can see these performances as interludes in an evening of high-energy heel-clicking flamenco.

We don't generally think of Haydn with a guitar in his hands, and perhaps he didn't either.  Indeed this divertissement in five movements was originally scored for lute and string trio.  To further add to the mystery, the work does not appear in the Hoboken catalogue, so its authenticity could be questioned despite the familiar vocabulary and invention, even for a trifle such as this.  The extensive Adagio is perhaps the most gorgeous episode on the album.

The recorded sound is superb: full bodied, yet textured and dynamic.  Another Qualiton benchmark.

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Mozart: Serenade in G Major, K. 525 Eine kleine Nachtmusik; Serenata Notturna, K. 239; Menuetto from the Divertimento, K. 334; Haydn: Serenade from the String Quartet in F Major, Op. 3, No. 5.  Hungarian Chamber Orchestra; Vilmos Tatrai, leader.
Qualiton LPX 1288

We'll end this survey with a program of 18th century top 40 hits. The Eine kleine Nachtmusik is perhaps Mozart's most immediately recognizable and oft-recorded chamber works. The music comes off so easily, it seems to play itself. I'm not sure that I've ever heard a poor performance.  The Serenata Nottorna takes more work to bring off, and not everyone finds its soul, though the Hungarians hit the mark with ease.  So what makes this record special?  It's that between the exquisite, loving playing of the Hungarian Chamber Orchestra and the Qualiton engineers, I can just about smell the powdered wigs and sense the large, uncluttered salon they and their appreciative audience must occupy.  Not since the awesome Argo ZRG 603 (Rossini String Sonatas with the ASMIF) has such tangibility been so readily communicated.  This is a record guaranteed to put a smile on your face for the rest of the day.

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