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Zoltan KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Dances of Galánta (1933) [17:33]
Concerto for Orchestra (1940) [19:22]
Variations on a Hungarian Folksong ‘The Peacock’ (1939) [26:37]
Dances of Marosszék (1929) [13:37]
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 2017, Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York
NAXOS 8.573838 [77:17]

Kodály’s relatively small output for orchestra was once comfortably accommodated on a legendary Decca 3LP set by the Philharmonia Hungarica and Antal Doráti.  This was re-issued a few years back in a 4CD box (review) in tandem with Peter Ustinov’s entertaining multi-role performance in the complete version of Háry János plus a superb Psalmus Hungaricus, both conducted by  István Kertész. For me at least, this is the reference recording for this composer’s repertoire and nearly half a century on it sets a high bar; having said that, some of these beautifully crafted works, most notably the Symphony in C and Concerto for Orchestra, have been too seldom recorded, so it’s a particular joy to welcome an enticing new account of this latter work on this generously filled Naxos release.

JoAnn Falletta and her Buffalo forces have specialised in recording for Naxos works that one might classify as ‘orchestral spectaculars’. Previous repertoire has included Gličre, Griffes, Florent Schmitt and Respighi. Perhaps Kodály’s orchestral colours are less garish than those of these contemporaries, but I would argue his talents as an orchestrator were at least of equal standing, while I suspect that he as a composer, holistically speaking, belongs in a completely different league.

These days the two sets of Dances, both included here, are probably Kodály’s best known orchestral works; they regularly feature on concert programmes, even more so than the Háry János suite, which at one time almost enjoyed ‘lollipop’ status. As I was growing up, even The Peacock Variations were more of a repertoire staple than they are today. I suppose concert audiences have become accustomed to hearing spiky modern repertoire and one is far more likely to hear Bartók live today than Kodály; there’s not usually room for two Hungarian twentieth century masters on the same programme. While Bartók ’s star has unquestionably waxed in the last 50 years, Kodály’s less confrontational orchestral œuvre has seemingly diminished in popularity, although the Dances remain in vogue as concert openers from time to time. With that in mind, it is good news indeed that Naxos have paired them with the less familiar Peacock Variations and the relatively unknown Concerto, rather than the Háry János suite, which would perhaps have made a more obvious coupling. Both the Concerto and the Variations are well worthy of reappraisal, and on this spaciously engineered and delectably performed disc, Falletta and her Buffalo players offer compelling advocacy for both.

The two sets of Dances open and close the programme. In each case, Falletta inevitably faces stiff competition from the classic Doráti accounts mentioned above (he made more than one recording of each) as well as revered readings from the likes of Solti, Ormandy, Fricsay,  Ferencsik and Reiner - to limit it just to those conductors with Hungarian blood. Judging by this account, however, it would not be remotely surprising to find Magyar DNA somewhere in the Falletta lineage. There is absolutely no discernible lack of idiomatic local swagger or colour in these well-turned performances. Where they really score (and this applies to the entire programme) is in the cohesion of the playing, the tightness of the Buffalo orchestra’s ensemble being palpable from the opening of the Dances of Galánta. If any listeners are aware of reduced authenticity here I am sure they will feel amply compensated by the excellence of the playing, which is surely superior to some of the ragged ensemble clearly present in some of the more feted competition; even the handsome Decca sound cannot completely conceal occasional rough edges in the Philharmonia Hungarica’s playing. Either way, in terms of modern recordings the one to beat in the Dances is Ivan Fischer’s utterly pulsating account on Philips (462 824-2) idiomatically played by the handpicked Budapest Festival Orchestra and superbly recorded in 1998. Falletta cannot perhaps quite match Fischer’s native swagger, especially in the outer sections of the Dances of Marosszék and the gipsy fiddling elsewhere, but the slower episodes require orchestral polish and in this regard the Buffalo band does not disappoint. Edward Yadzinski provides pithy commentaries to both sets of Dances in his accompanying notes.

While Fischer’s couplings are the Háry János suite and a selection of superbly performed Childrens’ choruses, Falletta’s are equally appealing. The Concerto for Orchestra of 1940 actually preceded his friend Bartók’s more renowned example by three years – this at a time when the form was really novel. Kodály’s piece is half as long as his compatriot’s and more direct; less showy and virtuosic, perhaps, but no less alluring in its more emotional, quasi-baroque way. It remains a surprise to me that this condensed and interesting work isn’t heard more often. The superb Tim Handley production gives Falletta and the fine Buffalo players the sound they truly deserve and I enjoyed this reading more than, say, Yan-Pascal Tortelier’s somewhat earthbound BBC PO account on Chandos (CHAN 9811 - review).

The longest work on the disc is generally considered to be Kodály’s orchestral masterpiece: the Variations on a Hungarian Folksong ‘The Peacock’ (to dignify the work with its full English title). In this work, Falletta magically distils the essence of an authentic ‘Hungarian’ Kodály sound. The playing of the Buffalo Phiharmonic is sparkling but earthy throughout. The statement of the theme at the outset is dark and full of foreboding. Thereafter, the contrasts between each short variation afford the players the opportunity really to demonstrate their versatility and mastery of Kodály’s idiom. What really impresses, though, is the sense of flow which is maintained across something of a gawky structure: a theme, sixteen variations (some exceedingly brief) and a finale. There is a real sense of coherence throughout this profoundly satisfying performance and also one of arrival at its end.

In conclusion: some pretty rare repertoire in ripe, largely idiomatic, interpretations; superb orchestral playing and conducting. A vivid recording with a real Buffalo bloom. There’s some strong competition but this just might be JoAnn Falletta’s best disc yet. At around six quid it’s a no-brainer.

Richard Hanlon



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