Auckland Youth Orchestra Brings Hungarian Folk to Whangarei

New ZealandNew Zealand Brahms, Ligeti, Bartók, Kodály; Alex McFarlane (viola), Auckland Youth Orchestra, Antun Poljanich (conductor); Forum North, Whangarei, New Zealand, 13.4.2014 [Pse]

Brahms – Hungarian Dances Nos. 1 and 5
LigetiConcert Românesc (Romanian Concerto)
BartókHungarian Sketches, Viola Concerto
KodályDances of Galanta

Let’s get some relatively minor “bad news” out of the way first. This themed concert’s title, “FOLKLORE”, emblazoned on the poster in big, bold, block capitals, is at best only half-right. Mind you, as some would say, “If it’s only half-right, it’s still wrong”. The good news is that the theme itself is not only sensible in the programme (a fairly rare occurrence), but also a real hum-dinger!

A much more accurate, though admittedly far less catchy title would have been “Nationalist Music of the Hungarian Region”. So, let’s just align ourselves on the same wavelength: to my mind, “nationalism” relates to a country’s composers making consistent and pervasive use of indigenous folk tunes or their styles to impart a sense of national identity. In Hungary, whose boundaries seem to have wandered about over the years, nationalism got off to a bad start. During the latter half of the nineteenth century composers, including such luminaries as Liszt and Brahms, had been hoodwinked by the politically-motivated promotion of polite parlour fare – so-called “gypsy music” – as Hungary’s “true” folk music.

In the early 1900s, Bartók and Kodály stumbled upon the Real McCoy: the peasant songs and dance-tunes of Hungary and its immediate neighbours. This Real McCoy was something altogether earthier, more raw-knuckled, potent and characterful – and, come to think of it, probably not at all suitable as a magnet for “tourist dollars”.

While I’m “coming to think of it”, many years ago I saw a TV documentary about Bartók, one sequence of which became burned into my brain. It involved cross-fadings between a performance of the astonishingly savage finale of the Fourth String Quartet and some old film footage of two Hungarian peasants, fiddling away with unfettered vigour and pungency in front of (I presume) a local watering hole. Not only did this illustrate the searing accuracy of Bartók’s distillation of style, but also it underlined the sheer refinement of his music! Really, this sequence ought to be compulsory viewing for any faint-hearted soul who dares to baulk at Bartók.

To continue: this discovery, of course, paved the way to a genuine nationalism. The AYO’s programme neatly illustrates this, though sadly – mostly because of a major glitch in the publicity machinery – it was addressed to a miserably sparse Whangarei audience.

In a rather nice touch, they started by exemplifying the aforementioned imposter. Maybe, since Liszt was the right nationality, one of his Hungarian Rhapsodies would have fitted the bill better. Nevertheless, the Brahms Hungarian Dances Nos. 1 and 5 that they did play served the purpose well enough. Far from cheating to “help” the argument, Antun Poljanich and the AYO were unstinting in their advocacy; after all, good music is good music, regardless of the validity of its inspiration.

In fact, accustomed as I’d become to these dances sounding genial and rotund, I was actually startled – and, I can tell you, nowadays it takes a lot to raise my reluctant eyebrows. Yet, here they were, thrillingly revitalised, their geniality bristling with vim and vigour, sharply-etched rhythms, ear-poppingly apposite rubati and gear-changes (these last utterly bereft of the usual prefatory “awkward”). Even so, when compared with what followed, I’d hazard that few could still insist on them as being “Hungarian”.

In the mid-1960s, Ligeti was involuntarily catapulted into the limelight, through the good offices of Stanley Kubrick, who used several of Ligeti’s more outlandish works (entirely without permission, or so I’m informed) in his film “2001, A Space Odyssey”. As a consequence, even today Ligeti’s very name can strike fear in the faint-hearted I mentioned earlier.

Well, as you may well know, they would be very pleasantly surprised by Ligeti’s truly scrumptious Concert Românesc. Written in 1951, long before the likes of Atmospheres and Lux Aeterna, it represents the tail-end of Hungarian nationalism, and merely a passing phase of Ligeti’s career. But, what a cracking combination of wistful reminiscence and razor-edged wit! From the initial velvet carpet laid by the strings to the furiously dancing, almost pointilliste finale, its tiny phrases rattling around the orchestra like machine-gun bullets in a barrel, this music just sat up and begged for the AYO treatment – and duly got it.

Bartók typically handled actual folk materials with enormous respect, refusing to elaborate more than was absolutely necessary in the particular context. In the early years of his voyages of discovery, he produced a plethora of piano pieces, sounding as near to the originals as the medium of the piano would allow – basically to demonstrate his discoveries to the public.

The Hungarian Sketches are direct and sympathetic orchestrations of five of these pieces. Since they are otherwise virtually unadulterated, the fragrance of the originals is still strong. They are by turns dreamy, vigorous and even (as per the fourth sketch’s title) “A Bit Tipsy”. In Poljanich’s hands, only this last seemed slightly under-characterised, being somewhat shy of vertiginous rubato. Otherwise, the AYO offered its audience sheer enchantment, from Evening in the Village, vacillating whimsically between “dusky” and “dancing”, to the rudely stomping savagery of Bear Dance, and a Swineherd’s Dance that was fleet of foot, and sent skittering like a pebble over a pond.

More than anyone, Bartók absorbed the Hungarian folk idiom, its spirit and harmonic language, into his very bones – to the extent that it can be felt clearly even in music that doesn’t seem overtly “folk-based”. A wonderful example (even though it was completed and orchestrated by his friend Tibor Serly) is his swan-song, the autumnal Viola Concerto. Soloist Alex McFarlane appeared undemonstrative to the point of impassivity. Appearances can be deceptive – for, through the medium of his viola, he simply exuded that all-important empathy with the music.

In the first movement, those wonderfully mellow, nut-brown tones elicited a sense of discursive song, which in the second became delicate yet intense music, of immense yearning and – yes – even anguish. Alex’s playing convinced me that the finale really was something of a farewell to Hungarian dance; although it was not at all short of fiery energy, he refused to inflate it into mere virtuoso showmanship. This was viola playing and musical interpretation of a very high order, blessed with the inestimable bonus of a commensurately fine orchestral contribution.

There are parallels, though hardly spectacular ones, with the earlier development of Czech nationalism. Whilst Dvořák and Bartók emerged as the greatest nationalists in their respective countries, Smetana and Kodály were first off the mark. Bartók accepted Hungarian peasant music unconditionally, but in his music Kodály, although no less committed to the cause, never displayed the folk style in all its raucous astringency. This is typified by his Dances of Galanta which, for this very reason, make a grand Finale.

Antun – yet again – had obviously thought long and hard about his interpretation, for the AYO’s articulation of the folk-tunes was so astutely expressed and accented, soloistic passages were rendered with such crystalline clarity, tuttis with such plum-pudding richness, with Kodály’s dreamy impressionistic ripples of notes meticulously planted in between the two. Nor did they overlook the cumulative aspect  of Kodály’s design – not for the AYO any going off half-cocked and running out of oomph; each climax capped its predecessor, racking up the tension all the way through to the conclusive, nape-tingling, hair-raising romp. Really, there was only one thing wrong (not even “half-right”) with this concert – there wasn’t enough of it!

Paul Serotsky

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