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Great Gramophone review

April 25, 2022

Ivan Moody

The works presented here by Kodály are folk inspired, and culminate in a superb rendition of Mátra Pictures. Kodály’s work is, however, given a particular context by appearing together with choral music by Ligeti, spanning nearly 30 years of the composer’s life. Indeed, the works by Ligeti appear first, if one is listening to the album in sequence, and this provides a fascinating retrospective context for Kodály’s choral sound world.

We begin with the always astonishing Lux aeterna (1966), whose clouds of sound, built through the spinning of endless micropolyphonic webs, are nevertheless possessed, in this performance, of such a tremendous tangibility, it’s almost as though one could reach out and pluck these sonic vapours from the air. The two unaccompanied choruses ‘Éjszaka’ and ‘Reggel’ (1955), though certainly simpler in concept, and seeming to last hardly any time at all, are far from easy in technical terms, and were not premiered until 1968, by the Swedish Radio Choir. Water off a duck’s back to the Danish singers, of course. From the same year come the Mátraszentimrei dalok, arrangements for female voices of folk songs from the Mátra region, which also inspired Kodály. The Drei Phantasien nach Friedrich Hölderlin are from rather later – 1982 – and clearly reflect Ligeti’s trajectory, both vocal and instrumental, during the intervening years. His range of choral effects might be considered a perfect musical transference of the poet’s fevered and unsettling imaginings; the composer makes use of a vast range of techniques, and in particular highly polyphonic writing and dense chromatic clouds, to suggest emotional instability and a rapidly changing range of emotions. Technically demanding though the pieces are, they seem to hold no terrors for the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, and Marcus Creed shapes them with assurance and complete control.

To move from this sound world to that of Kodály’s lovely Esti dal (1938) and the even earlier Este (1904) is in many ways quite unsettling, but in fact one does sense continuity between these works and those of Ligeti, and with Mátra Pictures (1931) we hear the composer employing his unique understanding of folk idioms to great effect in portraying the intensity and drama of village life. It’s difficult to imagine these works being sung much better than this, and the sound (the recording was made in DR Studio 2 in Copenhagen) is truly phenomenal, at once intimate and vibrant. Ivan Moody, Gramophone 26.04.22
Review | Gramophone