It’s fair to say that the name of Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) is alive and well, if by only a handful of works, principally the orchestral Suite from Háry János and Dances from Galánta; yet he was an admired pedagogue and an augustly-commissioned composer, and not forgetting his pioneering work, collaborating with his friend Béla Bartók, of collecting Hungarian folksongs. Yet while Bartók’s music has thrived, much of Kodály’s output has become occasional if not without recordings – by Dorati and Kertész, for examples, and George Szell’s definitive version of Háry János.
So, a warm welcome to the latest single-composer Naxos release from JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic, opening handsomely with Galántai táncok (1933), folksy and frisky music guaranteed to seduce and stimulate – and raise a smile – and including here a ripe horn solo summoning party revellers, some bewitching clarinet contributions from Todd Levy (not credited in the annotation), and a lively spirit that is infectious, aided by some affectionate expressive touches from Falletta and with fine attention to detail, not least timpani. As its bookend companion, Marosszéki táncok (1929) is no-less-engaging, aching with emotional (sometimes sentimental) melody, boogieing with spiky rhythms, and presenting a vivid picture of this (note) Romanian region.
The other pieces were high-profile commissions: Concerto for Orchestra for Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony’s fiftieth anniversary, and the Peacock Variations for the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg (the latter fact you won’t find in the booklet description). I believe the first composer to coin the title of Concerto for Orchestra (outside of rather different Baroque usage) was Paul Hindemith in 1925, Kodály’s example (1940) pre-dating Bartók’s for Boston by a few years. Kodály’s piece, energetic and languorous – maybe these extremes are too pronounced to satisfy wholeness – is not obviously virtuosic, the music undeniably attractive, shared between solos and orchestral sections, the lyrical material being especially generous of heart. If the Concerto’s structure is loose (or seems so) then a set of Variations is the ideal form to spread one’s creative wings, and Kodály does so wonderfully with a folksong, ‘The Peacock’ (Felszállott a páva), as the commentaries’ bait, feeding music of contrasts and imagination, colourfully and subtly scored, to sustain twenty-seven minutes – Theme (suggesting great potential), Sixteen Variations (from dreamy to exuberant), Finale (an extended wrapping up, homeward-bound and grandiose on arrival) – in a performance of distinction, very well recorded. A second Kodály volume, including Theatre Overture, Summer Evening and Symphony in C?