May 24, 2022
Danish National Vocal Ensemble & Marcus Creed: Lux Aeterna: Choral Works by György Ligeti and Zoltan Kodály OUR Recordings
Zoltan Kodály (1882-1967) and György Ligeti (1923-2006) will forever be recognized as seminal Hungarian music figures of the twentieth century. Whereas we associate the former with both the works he composed and his influential pedagogical materials, the latter is remembered primarily for groundbreaking compositions such as the extraordinary Lux Aeterna. They're tied by more than individual accomplishments and musical inheritance, however, as their historical paths also crossed significantly. In addition to being Kodály's student, Ligeti briefly taught at the Kodály-led Liszt Academy in Budapest, and, as this exceptional recording by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble and English conductor Marcus Creed shows, both composers created folk music-inspired choral pieces that bolster the homogeneous impression the recording achieves.
Fittingly, the album takes its name from Ligeti's still-arresting Lux Aeterna (Eternal Light) and opens with it too. Written ten years after he fled for Austria when Soviet troops invaded Hungary, the work shows Ligeti leaving folk influences behind for a nine-minute excursion into ‘micropolyphony,' in his words “a polyphonic texture so thickly woven that the individual voices become indistinguishable, and only the resulting harmonies, blending seamlessly into one another, can be clearly perceived.” Providing a fascinating counterpoint to it are pieces written in Hungary during the ‘50s and from 1982 Drei Phantasien nach Friedrich Hölderlin (Three Fantasies after Friedrich Hölderlin). Four folk song arrangements from 1955's Mátraszentimrei Dalok (Songs from Mátraszentimre) appear alongside “Éjszaka” (Night) and “Reggel” (Morning), which subtly anticipate Lux Aeterna in their use of tonal clusters. Much as Kodály dedicated himself to explorations into folk music, Ligeti did the same with respect to contemporary Western music.
In Lux Aeterna, traditional melody is suspended for timbre and texture, the outcome ethereal and the effect haunting. While the vocal ensemble becomes a floating, untethered mass for this setting, “Éjszaka” and “Reggel” provide bite-sized foreshadowings of the later work, even when the two songs contrast so markedly in style, “Éjszaka” subdued, slow, and mystery-laden and “Reggel” ablaze with energy. Mátraszentimrei Dalok, Ligeti's arrangements of four folk songs from a village in the region of the Mátra mountains (where Kodály obtained the melodies for his 1931 work Mátrai Képek) is conspicuously earthbound by comparison, though no less engaging as a result. Each is short and captivates in different ways: “Három hordó” (Three Barrels) for its emphatic vocal delivery, “Igaz szerelem” (True Love) for its heartfelt declaration, and “Gomb, gomb” (Pom-pom) and “Erdobe, erdobe” (Out in the Woods) for their playful, even child-like chants. Written sixteen years after Lux Aeterna, Drei Phantasien nach Friedrich Hölderlin is trademark Ligeti, even if he described the three fantasies retrospectively as polyphonic, not micropolyphonic. Melody returns but is now complexly distributed amongst sixteen voices, and the composer's experiments with half-diatonic and half-chromatic harmonies give the material a visionary and characteristically Ligeti-esque character. It's easy to hear “Abendphantasie” (Evening Reverie), for instance, as a natural next step after Lux Aeterna into even bolder territory.
The fifty-minute recording concludes with three Kodály selections, the first, 1938's Esti Dal (Evening Song) a poignant plea delivered by a soldier praying to God that he might safely survive the night. Adding to the humble beauty of the folk song, a humming background choir provides a hushed backdrop to the stirring melodies sung by the sopranos. As lovely is the vocal ensemble's rendering of the 1904 setting Este (Evening), which slowly blossoms from a hushed beginning into a glorious climax featuring a soaring soprano. Capping the release is 1931's choral suite Mátrai Képek (Mátra Pictures), which weaves five songs into an eleven-minute tapestry about village life in the Mátra region. Naturally, contrasts of mood and dynamics differentiate one part from another, yet they're unified by a folkloric quality.
Founded in 2007 and led by Creed since 2014, the Danish National Vocal Ensemble has developed a repertoire spanning five centuries, from Renaissance works to contemporary pieces, and has amassed an impressive discography featuring recordings on OUR and Dacapo of works by Bent Sørensen, Carl Nielsen, Per Nørgård, Olivier Messiaen, Rued Langgaard, and others. The group's luminous and authoritative performances on Lux Aeterna: Choral Works by György Ligeti and Zoltan Kodály make it a superb addition to that discography. May 2022