Hungarian Rhapsodized--Sir Georg Solti's final recording soars.
Thursday, June 4, 1998
Last summer, barely two months before his sudden death at age 85, Georg Solti made his final recordings, with the Budapest Festival orchestra and choirs. Like the program itself, the occasion was a personal homecoming for the acclaimed conductor. Just before rehearsals were to begin, several friends enticed Solti into taking the short drive to the Lake Balaton village where his family had its roots. He was surprised to find the mayor and many of the townsfolk waiting to celebrate and honor this native son. Born Gyrgy Stern, rising anti-Semitism convinced to boy''s father to exchange the family surname for one that sounded more "Hungarian." This was only the first of many humiliations that dogged Solti''s life in his native country. Political events continually interrupted his musical career and he ultimately left Hungary for good, building one of the century''s great conducting careers in Germany, Austria, England and the United States. (In 1990, during his international tour with the Chicago Symphony, Solti performed an all-Bartok program in Budapest.)
The Budapest Festival program was recorded at the Italian Institute in Budapest, as a tribute to three major Hungarian musicians with whom Solti studied at the Liszt Conservatory more than six decades ago: Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly, and Leo Weiner >(Sir Georg Solti--The Last Recording, London 458 929-2). In the 1950s, Solti had already recorded Kodaly''s Psalmus Hungaricus, but this was his first opportunity to record Bartok''s Cantata profana, the most neglected of the composer''s mature works. Since Weiner was his principal teacher (Kodaly examined his composition paper and Bartok gave him piano lessons), Solti included Weiner''s Serenade, Op3 for small orchestra, a charming four-movement suite that resembles the early orchestral serenades of Brahms, and displays similar excellence of craft and spirit.
Kodaly based his work on a Hungarian translation of Psalm 55, in which David complains to God about his enemies, particularly those who had befriended then betrayed him, and asks for deliverance. A fervent and dramatic setting for solo tenor, choirs and orchestra, the 1923 work resonated with Hungarians living under political oppression at that time. Bartok''s cantata, written in 1930, uses a narrative text based on Hungarian and Romanian folklore that tells how the nine beloved sons of "an old man" are transformed into stags. When the father unwittingly aims to shoot them, they call out, threatening to destroy him. Then, when he calls them to come home, they say their transformation cannot be reversed, their antlers are too wide for a door, the hearth is too hard for their hooves, that they cannot drink from crystal goblets but only the streams of cold, mountain water. (It does not take a great leap of imagination to believe Solti felt himself as one of the stags. To an interviewer''s question about why he didn''t perform more often in Hungary, he said, "How many times do you have to be told you are not wanted in your own country?")
To appreciate how much passion Solti brings to this CD, one needs only audition the same Bartok (sung in English) on a new release by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Robert Shaw (Telarc 80479). Always the consummate choral conductor, Shaw holds the orchestra down significantly in order (one supposes) not to cover the choral writing. Solti punches up the orchestral fabric sensationally--without serious harm to the chorus--and easily wins this contest. Moreover, the Solti recording delivers more vivid orchestral imaging and Bartok''s design (which fits the Hungarian language better) charges like the stags it represents. (Incidentally, Bartok opens the piece with a paraphrase of the beginning of Bach''s St. Matthew Passion, uses such historic devices as arias and fugues while generally favoring modal melodies and harmonies that hang somewhere between major and minor.)
Regardless, Shaw certainly delivers an excellent vocal product, plus his CD contains two other neglected masterpieces, Samuel Barber''s Prayers of Kierkegaard and Ralph Vaughan Williams'' Dona nobis pacem, both splendidly realized. Many designate Kierkegaard as the father of modern existentialist philosophy, but W.H. Auden (whom Barber quoted at the Boston premiere of Prayers) wrote that he was "neither a poet nor a philosopher, but a preacher, an expounder and defender of Christian doctrine and Christian conduct." The force of the texts seems to have inspired a rare passion of musical utterance in the composer, who adds a frenetic, ecstatic dance between the last two prayers. The Vaughan Williams, composed in 1936, is an extraordinarily urgent condemnation of war, using verses from Walt Whitman, John Bright, the book of Jeremiah, the named passage from the Roman mass, and a final benediction to Nick Jones'' O man greatly beloved, cobbled from various books of the Bible.
Both of these new CDs have much to recommend them, not least their exposure of so many overlooked masterpieces. Anyone interested in choral music should beat a path to their door. The quality of performers is top notch, including excellent soloists, particularly baritone Nathan Gunn on the Telarc disc.
Last Week''s Quiz: What 20th-century composer in 1917 wrote a cantata whose title and subject are the Greek goddess Demeter? Answer: Karol Szymanowski.
This Week''s Quiz:It is said that composer Paul Hindemith played every common Western instrument except harp and guitar. What major composer of his generation claimed to play every common western instrument except oboe?
Avant Garden Party
Sunday, 2-6pm. New Music Works''s annual fundraising blowout features West Coast composers, including Lou Harrison''s ballet In Praise of Johnny Appleseed, Moving/Storage/Crash/Burn Performance Company, and buffet. 700 Spring St., Santa Cruz. $40/buffet & special seating; $25/buffet and general seating. 427-2225.