Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Hungarian Revival

Having written at some length about Brahms yesterday, I did not really say very much about that part of the Kohl Mansion concert that was by Hungarian composers. I briefly mentioned György Ligeti but only for his departure from Hungarian idioms. The other two composers on the program, Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók actually collaborated on the ethnomusicological project of going out into the (Hungarian) field to collect source material. They both adopted that material in their own compositions but in decidedly different ways. While each of their approaches was interesting in its own right and I appreciated that the Kohl Mansion concert provided me with an opportunity to hear works I had not previously heard in live performance, for purpose of context I feel a need to mention one Hungarian composer who was not represented.

That composer is Alois Hába, and he was not represented because he was Czech. However, his field experience throws an important light on the efforts of Kodály and Bartók. Supposedly Hába spent a fair amount of time transcribing folk music, but he ran into a lot of trouble when he tried playing his transcriptions back to the people whose music he recorded. They insisted that he had not gotten any of it right at all, and the story goes that one of the musicians threatened Hába with physical assault unless he learned how to get it right! As a result Hába discovered that he would have to invent a microtonal notation in order to "get it right." Now, while we find an occasional use of quarter-tones in Bartók's string quartets, Bartók, himself, was primarily a pianist; so most of his work is written for the equal-tempered scale of twelve chromatic intervals. This raises the question of just how "authentic" the Kodály/Bartók transcriptions actually are; but this is a question for ethnomusicologists. At the very least they are more authentic than anything we encounter in Brahms (or, for that matter, Liszt); but they should still be taken on their own merits, rather than as ethnomusicological projects.

At Kohl Mansion Kodály was represented by a sonatina for cello and piano that was entirely new to me. Indeed, it was so new that I found I could not really listen to it in the context of any other Kodály compositions that I did know. At the time I thought I was picking up wisps of a jazzy American song. However, since the sonatina was completed in 1922, if there was a path of influence, it was probably in the opposite direction, having caught the attention of one of our own jazz of pop musicians who turned it around to his own purposes. (This is not out of the question, given that Mose Allison once even acknowledged his debt to Bartók.)

This takes us to Bartók, who was represented by his second rhapsody for violin and piano. The first used to get a fair amount of attention, but I knew the second only from my Bartók anthology. Both rhapsodies are in two movements, slow followed by fast. The popularity of the first may have had something to do with the family resemblance of the fast theme to "Simple Gifts" (probably coincidental in this case). The second rhapsody seemed to have a richer collection of source material, which meant that both movements explored their sources in somewhat greater depth.

As I mentioned yesterday, in this context the only thing Hungarian about Ligeti was his ancestry. His trio is an homage to Brahms whose only thematic acknowledgement is to Beethoven. The thing about Ligeti is his ability to combine impish wit and tragic longing in a single work, each adding strength to the other by the very nature of contrast. The middle two movements of this trio are outrageously wild, while the outer two progress from nostalgia to lamentation, ending in the same spirit as the beginning, with a reference to leave-taking colored by Beethoven's approach to the same theme.

Yesterday, I mention that the Kohl acoustics where not particularly kind to Brahms. The Ligeti trio was much more one of independent voices, all of which were particularly emphatic. Thus, if the acoustics did not allow the Brahms to blend properly, they served the Ligeti to greater advantage. Similarly, the single instrument accompanied by piano in both the Kodály and Bartók compositions were better balanced than the fuller sound of the Brahms. Consequently, the best "action" took place before the intermission; but this was also the opportunity to hear works that are seldom performed and deserve to be performed with much greater frequency.

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