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Music Web International

March 19, 2022

Philip R Buttall

György Ligeti was born in Transylvania, the historical region in central Romania, probably better known for its vampires and a certain dentally-challenged Count, than for its composers. In fact Ligeti relocated to neighbouring Hungary, before fleeing to Austria at the age of thirty-three, when former-Soviet troops entered Hungary to put down the popular movement against the then national government. He became an Austrian citizen in 1968, and some five years later, took up the position of Professor of Composition at the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik und Theater, where he worked until his retirement in 1989.

Zoltán Kodály was born some forty years earlier in Kecskemét, Hungary, where he learned to play the violin as a child. In 1905 he visited remote villages in order to collect songs, which he initially recorded on phonograph cylinders. Around this time Kodály met fellow-composer and compatriot, Béla Bartók, whom he took under his wing, and introduced him to some of the methods involved in collecting folk songs, becoming lifelong friends, and champions of each other’s music into the bargain.

Kodály’s works manifest an interesting blend of western European traditions, embracing classical, late-romantic, impressionist, and modernist, allied to a profound knowledge of, and respect for the folk music of Hungary, which also included areas of modern-day Slovakia and Romania. For a variety of reasons Kodály had no major public success until 1923, when one of his best-known pieces – Psalmus Hungaricus – was given its first performance at a concert to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the union of Buda and Pest. In 1958, following the death of his first wife after having been together for some forty-eight years, he married his nineteen-year-old student at the Franz Liszt Academy, Sarolta Péczely. In 1966 he toured the United States, and gave a special lecture at Stanford University, which featured performances of some of his own works.

Kodály had attempted to enlist the young Ligeti in his musical folkloristic work, but Ligeti declined to take on such a tradition-laden assignment, so instead, Kodály appointed him as a teacher of theory and counterpoint. Ligeti’s time at the Academy was, however, to prove short. Having been severely restricted in his musical style by the authorities of Communist Hungary, it was only once he reached the West in 1956, that Ligeti could fully realise his passion for avant-garde music, and thereby develop new compositional techniques. However well-intentioned Kodály was, it was simply that the younger composer had already ear-marked a different musical path to follow. After experimenting with electronic music in Cologne, Ligeti’s breakthrough came with orchestral works such as Atmosphères, for which he used a technique he later dubbed ‘micropolyphony’.

Ligeti is probably best known through the use of his music in film soundtracks. Although he did not specifically write any film scores, excerpts of his works were still adapted for film usage. The soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s films, particularly ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, drew from Ligeti's works, in combination with music by such varied composers as Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss II, and Aram Khachaturian. Ligeti’s health deteriorated after the turn of the millennium, and he died in Vienna in 2006, at the age of eighty-three – Kodály had outlived him by one year, when he passed away in Budapest in 1967.

This new CD of a cappella (unaccompanied) choral music opens with Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna (1966), which the most-comprehensive booklet describes as ‘music without a country – almost without a home planet!’ There are no harmonic or rhythmic foundations as such, and the work ends with the conductor beating silence, while the choir tacets during the last seven bars, as Ligeti takes his listeners further out towards the ‘eternal light’. The composer described the work as a ‘16-voice micropolyphonic piece with diatonic voice-leading of complex canons’. ‘Micropolyphony’ describes a polyphonic texture so thickly-woven that the individual voices become indistinguishable, and only the resulting harmonies, blending seamlessly one into another, can be clearly perceived. Although the piece uses text from the Catholic Requiem Mass, it transcends all manner of creed or religious beliefs. The effect on disc that the nineteen voices of the quite superb Danish National Vocal Ensemble (DNVE) achieve, under the highly-sensitive direction of Marcus Creed, is, in fact, breath-taking. While, in simplest terms, it could be likened to playing seemingly random notes on a soft-flute organ stop, building up a wash of sound until you have no more fingers left – in fact you actually need sixteen digits – and then releasing some, only to take up different ones. It can be strangely soothing in its effect, and, thoughtfully, the recording allows some twenty-five seconds of playout time, once the final note has died away, for the listener to ‘return to earth’, so to speak.

According to the booklet, Ligeti’s folk-song arrangements could be described as ‘much more down-to-earth’. But should you err on the traditional side, then I would possibly consider deleting ‘much’ from this description. True, in terms of Lux Aeterna, they present a somewhat different sound-world – but even the first two arrangements are far more experimental than would have been the expected norm for Hungarian composers working back in 1955.

Just as Ligeti was about to flee Hungary, he had managed to have a consignment of modern Western music sent to him from Vienna, which he described as ‘the best shock of my life’. The impression this made on him is clearly evident, for example, in his eight-part Éjszaka – Reggel, where the two songs form a pair. The titles mean ‘Night – Day’, and the pieces reflect this in their musical makeup – Éjszaka is slow, static, and mysterious, while Reggel is absolutely brimming with energy, a veritable vocal tour de force which the singers despatch with the utmost panache. The booklet discusses in some detail Ligeti’s inspired use of word-painting in both songs. Éjszaka – Reggel had to wait until 1968 to be performed, when the composer had some employment in Stockholm, and was in contact with the Swedish Radio Choir and its conductor, Eric Ericson. At the same time, he was gaining recognition in Denmark, where he was celebrated with festivals, performances, and prizes.

Next come the Mátraszentimrei Dalok (Songs from Mátraszentimre), which also date from 1955, and are arrangements of four Hungarian folksongs from a village in the region of the Mátra mountains where Kodály would later find the melodies for his major work Mátra Pictures. Ligeti’s Mátra Songs are quite short, clear-cut and granular, and deal with love and war. He initially arranged them for children’s voices, though they are usually sung by women’s voices. The four songs comprise Három hordó (Three Barrels), Igaz szerelem (True Love), Gomb, gomb (Pom-pom), and Erdöbe, Erdöbe (Out in the woods). These are all immediately appealing, upbeat, and eminently melodic, with a clearly-defined rhythmic pulse.

In 1982, Ligeti wrote one of his largest unaccompanied works, Drei Phantasien nach Friedrich Hölderlin (Three Fantasies after Friedrich Hölderlin), which was first performed by the Swedish Radio Choir and Ericson the following year. It consists of three movements inspired by German poet and philosopher, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), written for sixteen voices, namely four each of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. The compositional style is clearly influenced by Ligeti’s word-painting techniques dating from the 60s. The composer’s own comments on the work are featured in the booklet, and are really essential reading, if only to get a meaningful insight into his musical intentions, and the methods and devices he employs to achieve them. Of equal import here, is the contribution from Danish musicologist, and the author of the excellent liner notes, Jens Cornelius, who guides the listener through each of the three movements – Hälfte des Lebens (Halfway through Life), Wenn aus der Ferne (If from a Distance), and Abendphantasie (Evening Reverie). Suffice it to say that they still represent some of the most challenging a cappella repertoire ever, with their half diatonic, half chromatic harmonies, as well as eccentric dynamics like fffff. Despite the music at times seemingly reaching the limit of what is possible for a vocal ensemble to bring off, the DNVE once again rises to the challenge, and with some margin to spare. It might be something of an acquired taste, but I must say that I was really mesmerized both by the music, and more so by the stunning vocal virtuosity of these truly ‘great-Dane’ singers – and nowhere more so than in the opening Hälfte des Lebens.

The booklet reminds us that Kodály and Ligeti were linked by mutual respect, the Hungarian language, their musical heritage, and an almost father-son-type age difference, which occasionally caused problems between them. Ligeti’s sixty-plus early choral works are derived directly from the older composer’s earlier models. Kodály’s first choral piece to be published – and his second contribution on this new CD – was Este (Evening), which dates from 1904, when the composer was on the brink of a new artistic phase, influenced at the time by French Impressionism. It’s a totally different experience from Ligeti, of course, with some serenely beautiful ‘end-of-day’ harmonies, which show off a completely different side of the DNVE’s prowess, where the textures created often resemble those of sustained strings, cocooning the interweaving solo-lines above.

In the summer of 1905, Kodály started his life-long studies of Hungarian folk music with an expedition to the region around his childhood town of Galánta. He returned with 150 folksongs written down and recorded, and the next year was awarded a doctorate based on a thesis on this material. The same year, in collaboration with Béla Bartók, he published a collection of arrangements of the Hungarian melodies they had assembled, and, in the time leading up to the First World War, they had amassed more than 3,000 melodies. Esti dal (Evening Song) – which precedes Esti on the CD – is sung by a soldier who, in a foreign country, prays to God that he may safely survive the night. The song, that Kodály had previously collected in 1922, and which he subsequently arranged for unaccompanied choir in 1938, initially features soprano voices, with the remainder of the choir humming. There is a shorter middle section where all four voices become equally involved, before a return to the opening layout. Its heartfelt, yet simple emotion captures the mood of the text so perfectly, in what is yet another pure gem from the choir.

The closing track features Kodály’s set of five songs, Mátrai képek (Mátra Pictures), which he wrote in 1931. Here he combines five narratives about village life in the mountainous region of Mátra, into the musical equivalent of a sequence of short stories, sung without a break. If you’re fluent in Hungarian, then you’ll no doubt have a pretty good idea of what’s going on, as the music unfolds. If not, you’ll need to get hold of a copy, where all is revealed in the booklet – in both English and German. Kodály’s musical imagination and unrivalled ability to get the very best out of a chamber-choir are second-to-none here, and, at times, you even seem able to detect some instrumental colours like the traditional hurdy-gurdy and bagpipes in the virtuoso finale, to say nothing of flocks of chickens getting caught up with some heavy-drinking peasants. Yet, as they say on TV, no musical instruments – or chickens, for that matter, were harmed in the preparation of this recording. It’s just voices, more voices – and even more voices.

Prior to auditioning this CD, I would have said that more than half of it would be outside my usual comfort zone to start with. But having lived with it for some time now, I am genuinely surprised – as well as really pleased – by how much I have enjoyed the contents, taken as a whole. This, I feel, would be a good reason for similarly-minded listeners if only to sample it online, rather than dismiss it out of hand, and I am mildly confident that many will then see and hear things in a new, if not quite ‘eternal’, light. On the other hand, for avowed a capella aficionados, this would make a superb addition to any CD collection

However, if neither premise really applies, then just let this immaculately-performed, faithfully-recorded, and pleasingly well-documented CD amaze you with what the most natural of musical instruments – the human voice – can achieve in the hands of such a stunning choir as the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, under Marcus Creed’s superlative direction, especially in such a wonderful mix of challenging, yet eminently entertaining repertoire, for listener and performer alike.

I should just add that, while this new disc is described as a Super Audio Single CD (DXD audio format), it still performed perfectly on my conventional CD-player. Philip R Buttall, March 20 – 2022