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Zoltán JENEY (b 1943)
Wohin? for chorus and orchestra (2013) [5:04]
From the Heraclitus Series, for piano:
Heraclitus in H (1980) [1:27]
Heraclitian Tear-drop [3:38]
Heraclitus Adverbial [5:24]
-For four undefined melodic instruments (string quartet):
“which half is never the same?” (2013) [3:07]
Consolazione (something lost: echo) for cello and piano (2001) [13:53]
Songs of Innocence and Experience, for solo voice (1996-97, rev 2012) [10:30]
Pavane (2007) for orchestra [16:10]
MR Symphony Orchestra & Choir/Zoltán Kocsis
Gábor Csalog (piano)
Krulik String Quartet (Eszter Krulik, Angéla Bálint, violins; Andor Jobbágy, viola; Judit Nagy, cello)
Piia Komsi (soprano)
rec 2013, BMC Concert Hall, Budapest (chamber and instrumental works); Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest (orchestral works).
English texts included
BUDAPEST MUSIC CENTRE BMCCD240 [59:14]

I have to admit to having a bit of a thing for Hungarian music – especially that of less familiar composers (ie other than Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi). There’s some worthy, original stuff out there, not least the symphonic works of László Lajtha, recently re-issued on Naxos and cordially welcomed by Rob Barnett here ( in my view Lajtha is unquestionably Hungary’s greatest symphonist).

I suspect I’m not the only MusicWeb aficionado who has spent hours looking at lists of Hungaroton (and more recently BMC) releases over the years. One name to regularly feature on them is that of the composer behind this disc ‘Wohin?’, Zoltán Jeney. I do wonder if any other enthusiasts have mistakenly assumed (as I did) that this was one of the young Jeney twins (Zoltán and Gábor) for whom Britten composed his Gemini Variatons, Op 73? The conceit of that work surrounded the fact that while both twins were capable pianists one was also a flautist and the other played violin, and the work requires them to swap instruments from time to time. Anyway, groundwork for this review reveals that the twins were born in 1952, nine years after this Zoltán Jeney!

Anyway, to cut to the chase (finally!) this issue throws together, somewhat arbitrarily I feel, pieces for orchestra (with and without chorus), solo piano, cello and piano, string quartet, and voice alone. It’s essentially a composer portrait, then.

The orchestral works open and close the disc. Wohin? is a five minute work featuring a chorus in the last thirty seconds. It exists in many versions; originally it was an aphoristic, satirical joke – submitted in response to a 2003 poll of composers by the journal Musiktexte, eliciting their reactions - verbal or otherwise – to the Allied invasion of Iraq. In Jeney’s original version, a single voice mumbles some notes which through intonation and pulse reveals itself to be a skewed, tuneless parody of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the anthem of the European Union. (Some of you may watch coverage of the European Champions’ League football and be all too aware of a ubiquitous pastiche along these lines….) Apparently Jeney has rearranged this ‘sad little joke’ (to paraphrase the notes) over the years for various instrumental groups; it has now reached its final, extended version, recorded here and essentially an assemblage of some of these previous versions. The mumbled ‘Ode’ verse is played on a solo cello; this is then repeated, weirdly harmonised, by what sounds like a string quartet. There follows another, faster restatement with a chamber orchestra. Then after a sudden pause the march featuring the triangle is mashed up. The music stops at the point one would expect the words: “Seid umschlungen, Millionen?” Instead the chorus intones a distortion of the “Ihr stürzt nieder…” phrase and the work ends there abruptly – clearly this is meant to convey deep irony. This short work makes a disturbing impression but it’s not exactly a joyful listening experience worthy of regular repetition.

The Pavane which closes the disc is, at 16 minutes the longest work here. According to the note, Jeney based his three hour magnum opus “Funeral Rite” on a 128 note melody derived from a computer-generated fractal series. Years later the composer apparently had a dream in which two further note-rows (drawn from the same series) occurred to him. These rows form the basis of Pavane. This piece at least has its moments. It’s in three sections; the first two are very brief, the last one much longer. The first episode recalls the Ligeti of Lontano or Atmospheres. One is beguiled by the gently pulsing orchestral textures and piquant close heterophony, but no sooner has it started to weave its spell than the even briefer second section suddenly takes over. We are told this converts the melody into a five-part ricercar, but I’m afraid this structure completely eludes my ears. This overall effect is of a swift, rhythmically unpredictable passage, jagged but not unpleasant, with an eerily Bartókian essence. The final movement occupies eighty per cent of the whole work. Here the different instruments start with the same melody but proceed to play it at contrasting tempi, creating a time-lag effect with stresses and accents at unpredictable points. There’s very little timbral variety, however: it plods along with an uneasy stride – the booklet note uses the word ‘strenuous’ to describe the second movement – to my ears that descriptor applies more to the third. The whole thing seems to peter out after a promising start.

The three “Heraclitus” piano pieces are strangely and languidly alluring; again they seem to tap into a Bartókian spirit – the ‘night music’ slow movements of his Piano Concertos are evoked, if not directly quoted. In fact their inspiration also partially emerged from an extra-musical source, in this case the column-like visual appearance of an acrostic poem, “Heraclitus Memorial Column” by Dezső Tandori. The sensitive pianist in these miniatures is Gábor Csalog, and he benefits from a spacious recording. This “Heraclitus” series also includes the enigmatically titled “which half is never the same”, here performed by the Krulik String Quartet. The rather complex procedure behind the composition of this miniature is described in detail in the notes, but I’m afraid the overall impression it made on me was a rather anonymous, empty one. Kurtág this is not.

Consolazione for cello and piano was composed for the 80th birthday of Jeney’s compatriot András Szöllösy. It proceeds gently and serenely on the one hand but there is a stop/start fragmented aspect to the piece, which in my view impedes its expressive goals, although this may actually reflect the troubled life of its dedicatee. It taps into a well of melancholy to be sure but despite a committed performance and vivid recording again it’s not a piece I can imagine revisiting with any frequency.

The other work on this curate’s egg-like anthology of Jeney’s art is a setting for solo soprano of six of William Blake’s famous ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. The Finn Piia Komsi emphasises the more playful aspects of these attractive vocal miniatures, which also involve a degree of chance and freedom in that the performer can select corresponding musical notes from the syllables of Blake’s texts. For reference points, imagine the more approachable solo voice creations of Berio or even Cage.

So a mixed bag – probably more of interest to the specialist than to someone with a more generalised curiosity for the Hungarian art. I suppose the connection between the pieces concerns the respective roles of mathematics and ‘word-games’ within Jeney’s compositional technique; whether that results in a coherent or satisfying listening whole is questionable, however. BMC’s presentation is certainly attractive; performances (mostly live, it would seem) and recording standards throughout are more than acceptable.

Richard Hanlon
 

 

 




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