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Fanfare (US) Five stars: Stunning performances of wonderful 20th century Hungarian choral works.

February 5, 2022

William Kempster

Lux Aeterna  Marcus Creed, cond; Danish National Vocal Ensemble  OUR RECORDINGS 6.220676 (50:30)

LIGETI Lux Aeterna (Eternal Light). Zwei a-cappella Chöre (Two unaccompanied Choruses). Mátraszentimrei Dalok (Songs from Mátraszentimre). Drei Phantasien nach Friedrich Hölderlin (Three Fantasies after Friedrich Hölderlin). KODÁLY Esti Dal (Evening Song). Este (Evening). Mátrai képek (Mátra Pictures)
This new SACD from the Danish National Vocal Ensemble takes its title—Lux Aeterna—from György Ligeti’s classic of 20th-century choral music, a work that has likely reached more unsuspecting listeners than true aficionados due to its use in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is perhaps ironic, therefore, that I found the performance of Lux aeterna here to be the least convincing of all of the performances presented on this wonderful new recording featuring the music of two giants of 20th-century Hungarian music: Ligeti and Zoltán Kodály. All of the other pieces, however, are so spectacular that this new SACD should be a mandatory purchase for anyone even remotely interested in either this repertoire or 20th-century choral music in general.
Lux aeterna is a difficult piece to bring off at the best of times, and I feel it is easier to become entranced by it in a live performance situation in a reverberant acoustic. This new recording seems just a little too clinical to me, with the recording a little too dry for the full effect of the piece to be truly felt. Unfortunately I was not able to hear the surround-sound mix for any of the tracks on this new disc, and I would be hopeful that the missing ingredient I detect here would be supplied by that version. Of all of the tracks on this disc, this is the one that really needs that extra sense of space. The one other aspect of this performance that did not quite convince this listener has to do with tuning. Tuning really is a matter of opinion when it gets down to the very finest of details. Even in tonal music it is amazing how different individual tastes can be when it comes to subtle difference in temperament. For me, in this performance the semitonal dissonances, in particular, were not quite as narrow as I personally would have liked them. Having prepared and conducted the piece myself I know that this opinion would not be everyone’s. I am sure that many (or even most) listeners would be entirely happy with the results here, and—to be fair—I found similar problems with the only other recording I know of that could rival this new one, that by Cappella Amsterdam on Harmonia Mundi.
Having gotten my one slight reservation out of the way, it is a real pleasure to now move on to all of the rest of the music presented on this disc. I will first concentrate on the other Ligeti pieces—in order of complexity for the listener—commencing with the four Songs from Mátraszentimre for women’s voices, dating from 1955, just before the composer left Hungary for the West. These four short folk-song arrangements are exceptionally approachable, and the performances presented here by the women of the Danish National Vocal Ensemble are absolutely flawless. There is exceptional vocal characterization on show here, with the sopranos pure and lucid at all times, and the altos richly sonorous, especially when projecting melodic lines in an authentically earthy manner. At different times these pieces can call for driving rhythmic intensity, or beguiling melodic legato, or different voices coming to the fore, or combinations of these things, and all are masterfully achieved with complete authority by the singers involved.
The Two Unaccompanied Choruses (for mixed choir) also work with folk-based material and are also from 1955, but are much more reflective of the emerging personality Ligeti the composer would later reveal more fully. Both of these pieces feature layered repetition to create complex textures and harmonies, and both are technically very challenging. That said, this is still music that is quite approachable, and the composer’s manipulation of his resources—both purely compositional as well as in terms of the choral sound itself—are quite masterful. Both also close on a consonant chord, which I guarantee will bring a smile to many, not just myself!
In my opinion, the least approachable of the Ligeti works on this disc is also its greatest triumph, and I don’t think it is going too far to say that this recording of the Three Fantasies after Friedrich Hölderlin will go down as one of the great choral recordings of our time. This is a fiendishly difficult piece that—in less perfect hands—could be a complete mess, but the performance here by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble is simply stunning. The only work I personally know that might be as vocally difficult as this is Luciano Berio’s Canticum Novissimi Testamenti II, which is entirely atonal throughout. The Berio, however, also has fixed-pitch instrumental involvement (clarinets and saxophones), so it is immediately less difficult on account of the fact that the singers always have some stable pitch reference. The Ligeti, however, is for 16 vocal parts unaccompanied, and it is also significantly more “athletic” (especially for the sopranos) than the Berio.
The Three Fantasies—especially in the outside movements—features dense and complex textures and harmonies, many of which must be heard in the mind by the singers before their occurrence and then produced pretty much out of thin air. There is nowhere to hide here for any individual performer, but time and time again these singers absolutely nail every one of these incredibly difficult technical and aural challenges. Many of the highly dissonant chords created also have to be sustained for differing lengths, and the purity of tone all singers must possess for this to be successfully achieved is always on show. It is just amazingly impressive. Then there are the extreme demands of tessitura and dynamics the piece brings for every performer, especially the soprano singers. On some occasions the singers have to be nearly screaming to communicate the composer’s intentions faithfully, and yet there is never any sense that the performance gets out of control, which is a testament not only to the singers themselves, but also to their conductor, Marcus Creed. This is not easy music for the listener either, as Ligeti’s imagery and inspiration both contain actual “violence,” but the result is uniquely compelling and challenging at the same time. This is a magnificent performance of an important and little-known masterpiece that will almost certainly never be bettered. The only other recording I know of, on a Sony Classical album of Ligeti Masterworks, does not even come close.
Zoltán Kodály was known and respected by Ligeti, but his music comes from an entirely different era and could hardly be more contrasting in its projected sense of a choral aesthetic. It is wonderful to hear a non-Hungarian choir tackle this repertoire, as for far too long this body of music has been almost completely neglected by Western ensembles. There are three Kodály works presented here. Two of these are relatively short, while the third—Mátra Pictures—is an undoubted masterpiece.
The first of the shorter pieces, Evening Song, sets a folk melody Kodály himself collected in 1922, and is just gorgeous. Cast in a straightforward ternary (ABA) structure, the “A” sections feature the beautiful melody in the sopranos against a subtly varied sustained chord hummed by the rest of the choir, while the “B” section is fully texted for all parts. The gentle warmth and humanity the music projects are touching, and this is a piece that is well within the reach of most competent chamber choirs, many of which routinely seem to spend time on repertoire nowhere near as fine. The second piece, Evening, similarly uses some vocalise to set the scene, but is more complex and dramatic. It is equally beautifully sung, however, and the final part is truly uplifting, featuring a number of spine-chilling unprepared harmonic shifts that are truly the mark of a master. This is just beautiful singing.
The final work on this new disc is Mátra Pictures, which is a real tour de force of the genre of folk-inspired concert works, derived from Central Europe in the mid-20th century (Szymanowski’s Six Kurpian Songs also comes to mind). The piece is laid out in five sections and employs a variety of textural approaches in order to convey the narrative. One of these techniques features a particular voice-section holding the main melody, to which the rest of the choir respond with regular homophonic interjections. Another technique employs imitation—both melodic and between sections of the choir—where the composer’s method is always crystal clear and immediate. The particular feature of the Hungarian language where words consisting of a quick, accented syllable—falling on the beat—are immediately followed by a longer syllable is also ever-present in this music. The setting has lots of internal contrast and really builds up a head of steam going into the fast, furious, and exhilarating final section. The singers of the Danish National Vocal Ensemble sound as if they are having a wonderful time, and the performance is fabulous.
Apart from my slight reservations noted above concerning Lux aeterna, the recording here is excellent. The sound is immediate and highly detailed, but with a nice ring and bloom as well. The recording approach would probably be too analytical for most choirs, but we are not dealing with “most choirs” here. This is an absolutely outstanding disc of wonderful music, most of which is rarely if ever recorded anywhere, let alone outside of Hungary. The performance of Ligeti’s important Three Fantasies will likely never be matched, and the Kodály performances—of works all available on a Hungaroton CD entitled An Ode to Music—are of a standard the Chamber Choir of Pécs—on that disc—simply cannot match. Urgently recommended.