About this Recording
8.559063 - BARATI: Symphony No. 1 / Chant of Darkness / Chant of Light
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George Barati (1913—1996)

Symphony No.1 (1963) • Chant of Darkness (1993) • Chant of Light (1994/95)

From Bartók to Ormandy, Ligeti to the Budapest String Quartet, the rich contribution of Hungary to twentieth-century music has been disproportionate to the small political stature of this nation of only ten million inhabitants. This was partly the result of an ongoing diaspora of the country’s intellectual and artistic elite, which began during the Fascist period of the 1930s, continued through World War II and the aftermath of the 1956 civil war, and to some extent is still seen in the Hungary of the late twentieth century. The United States reaped enormous benefits from this flow of immigration, as musicians like Bartók, George Szell and Joseph Szigeti enriched immeasurably the cultural life of their new land–and were enriched in turn, spurred on by fresh hopes and possibilities.

Less well known than these figures, but hardly less significant, was George Barati, a composer, conductor, and cellist who exerted an impact on American life from the moment he took up residence in New Jersey in 1938 until his death recently at the age of 83. Born in Györ in northwestern Hungary, the 25-year-old Barati arrived in the United States a full-blown musician, having been well prepared at Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy, where his teachers included Zoltán Kodály and Leo Weiner. Yet despite his eventual importance as conductor and composer, initially Barati made his mark as a cellist, serving in orchestras and other ensembles including the Budapest Symphony and Opera Orchestra, where he was principal cellist during his last two years in Hungary.

Arriving in Princeton, Barati first took up compositional studies with Roger Sessions, a composer whose density of thought and texture gradually found its way into Barati’s music, but primarily he busied himself with performance: he was co-founder of the Pro Ideale String Quartet in Princeton and was hired to establish a string department at the city’s Westminster Choir College. During these years (1938—1943) he also taught the cello at Westminster and at the New Jersey State Teacher’s College. Barati became an American citizen in 1944, just in time for a short period of last-minute war service: from 1944 to 1946 he led the Alexandria (Louisiana) Military Symphony. Moving to San Francisco after the war, he played the cello in that city’s orchestra under Pierre Monteux. Before long he was a key figure in the musical life of northern California, and at the end of his career as at the beginning, it was clear that his life as performer was essential to his compositional life.

Barati became a conductor of the first rank, and throughout his life he asserted the vital importance of this activity for his creative work. "It’s like hearing music from outside-in," he said, "versus from inside-out." In 1948 he founded the Barati Chamber Orchestra, and two years later was invited to become music director of the Honolulu Symphony — a position he held until 1968. Later in life he led the Santa Cruz County Symphony, the Villa Montalvo Chamber Orchestra, and the Barati Ensemble, which he founded in 1989. During all this time he was also guest conductor for some 85 orchestras worldwide.

Among Barati’s honours were the Naumburg Award for the Chamber Concerto, which was recorded by Eugene Ormandy and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1962, a Guggenheim Fellowship (1965-66), a Ditson Award for the performance of contemporary American music, and a doctorate honoris causa from the University of Hawaii. He also received grants from the U.S. State Department for performance and research tours abroad. In 1991 the University of California at Santa Cruz established a George Barati Archive.

The present disc juxtaposes one work from Barati’s ripest maturity, the important and previously unrecorded Symphony from 1963, with two companion pieces from his final years. In all these can be heard the dominant trends that characterized the composer’s output throughout his career: a vigorous working-out of motivic material, at times in an expressly Bartókian fashion, an intensity of rhythmic energy, and a conductor’s mastery of orchestral texture that is seldom heard in the music of his contemporaries.

Having travelled much during his life, Barati characterized his music as responding to "a diversity of influences" from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Polynesia, which merged with his own traditional European and Hungarian background. This multicultural outlook and attitude, as he wrote, "have induced a highly personal style which allows influences from Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Bartók — all the way to jazz and Schoenberg — to blend naturally with sounds beyond the Pacific Ocean."

Indeed, Barati’s music reflects a variety of experience, including Bartók’s explosive rhythms, 1920s neoclassicism, and the iconoclasm of the 1960s, in addition to the folkloric sounds absorbed during his Hawaiian years–what Barati called "the characteristic rhythms, the accelerating tempos, and the passionate songfulness of the native music."

This is not to imply that his music is easily approachable. "Any piece must include complexity and mystery," he wrote, "for further revelations upon re-experiencing." Barati said that his goal was "to delve into the deeper regions of the soul … which may make the texture of my music complex rather than simple — arousing questions but also hopefully providing answers to those questions too." Though he was not a twelve-tone composer, Barati allied himself with the atonalists. "I have great respect for the enormous intellectual power that goes into twelve-tone compositions," he wrote, "and occasionally I use some of its devices. But I like to combine them with more personal and expressive elements." His outlook was a sane one: "I think the system will be of service to the music of the future … but I don’t think the mainstream lies in that direction."

This is relevant to a discussion of Barati’s magnificent Symphony, for its materials touch upon serial methods, which are treated with an intentionally unsystematic freedom. Written in 1963 during a stay in Switzerland, this piece contains much of the scenic splendor of the Alps.

Barati’s Alpine Symphony was produced while the composer and his family were living in the village of St Cergue, in which is nestled a splendid ski resort, during a period in which the composer travelled as a conductor throughout Europe and Asia, returning to Hawaii for his concerts there. Barati later said this Swiss experience was what he imagined a similar stay in the Rocky Mountains might have been like: breathless vistas, sparkling streams, natural wonders at once massively imposing and filled with the most minute detail. Barati even appears to have replicated the delicate whistle of the train that climbed the mountain up from Lake Leman every day.

The first of the symphony’s three movements, marked Maestoso is a grand organic structure, the daunting complexity of which has been mitigated partly through a dance-like rhythmic vitality. After the brief fanfare opening, strings and woodwinds announce the quirky opening theme, which quickly gives way to a subsidiary theme of equal interest, first heard in oboes and bassoons. Muted trumpets and horns announce in whimsical fashion the arrival of the mountain train, which travels smoothly toward a section of developmental material. The dark-hued harmonies throughout this passage are often of a strikingly Schoenbergian flavour, though the motivic method derives from Bartók or even Beethoven. The movement’s huge climax is constructed with richest clarity of orchestral texture, and a contrapuntal density of rare skill. The return to initial material is more in the form of a variation than a true recapitulation.

The subsequent Andantino tranquillo is a compound structure like that often found in the instrumental works of Shostakovich — which in this case places a Scherzo in the centre of a languid Andante movement. The piece opens with a series of lyrical tunes and fragments, the stepwise motion of which again recalls Bartók’s mature work. Suddenly Barati injects what appears to be another train-arrival, in the form of a Scherzo, which eventually dissipates back into Andantino.

The flavour of the scherzo is not so easily dispelled, and continues to haunt the slow music until it finally gives way to the finale, Allegro con fuoco, which follows directly and without pause. This last is another compound movement, richly scored and even vaguely tragic around the edges; a reiteration of the opening fanfare material brings the work to a strongly organic close.

In 1996 George Barati died on the streets of Los Gatos, California, in an event as tragic and as mystifying as the death of Anton Webern half century earlier. As the octogenarian composer was taking a walk one June evening, he was apparently struck on the head by a still-unidentified assailant, in an incident that was first reported as a fall. He died from severe head injuries eleven days later — leaving his wife and family and the music world to mourn the passing of an American original.

When he died Barati left behind two works completed in the last years of his life, the Chant of Darkness (1993) and the Chant of Light (1994-5). "One of the sad things about his death was that he was moving into a kind of renewed compositional mode," said his wife Ruth, in early 1999, shortly before her own death later that year. The fruits of this "renewed mode" form the remainder of this disc.

Barati had composed the Chant of Darkness as an expression of mourning for his daughter, who died in 1992 at the age of 39; later he decided to balance out the pessimism of the work with this companion piece. Much of the young Barati can be heard in the Chant of Light, completed in 1995 and published in 1996 just weeks before his death that June, the love of intervals of seconds and sevenths, the propensity toward tiny motivic cells, the luscious orchestral colour, and the Andante-character that recalls the Symphony’s opening movement. Cast in true three-part song-form (A-B-A), the piece contrasts the initial slow section with a peculiar Scherzo characterized by repeated variants and a Bartókian rhythmic quality.

The opening of the Chant of Darkness seems to take up the material of the conclusion of the Chant of Light. Composed in a grief-stricken state, this piece is unique in Barati’s output for its unremitting darkness. "Our beloved daughter, Lorna, was dying," the composer wrote. "The intensity of pain and anger, the absence of any sense of reality, days and nights leading into an abyss of uncertainty, similar to the period after an earthquake, all produced a vacuum, a nothingness … It was in this voice I wrote down the notes of Chant of Darkness. Most of the sixteen-minute piece went directly into the score, an act of reckless daring, customarily preceded by sketches and a piano reduction."

Barati also wrote a preface to the score: "During the darkest days before our daughter … died of breast cancer, in desperation I began to put down my feelings in musical terms. … The composition flowed from sources hidden and mysterious even to me. My sense is that it wrote itself and I cannot even claim authorship, except for the suffering, pain, anguish, and anger I felt. … I offer this music to those suffering personal loss who seek an expression of sorrow beyond the limits of words." There is, indeed, a frightening sense of finality to the Chant of Darkness, which begins and ends with a vague sound of the orchestra tuning up — an almost spookily appropriate final gesture for a composer who devoted so much of his life to asserting the validity of this still-vibrant medium.


Paul J. Horsley

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