About this Recording
GP803 - BALASSA, S.: Piano Music (Complete), Vol. 1 (Kassai)
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My relationship with music started with operas: my ‘metal-worker’s hands’ prevented me from achieving excellence on the piano. After my early period of composing operas and orchestral music, my attention gradually turned towards chamber music. Playing chamber music gave me the opportunity to convey my musical concepts through the piano as a solo instrument as well. As the number of these pieces grew, the need for composing piano cycles presented itself.

The less technically demanding piano works not intended for the concert stage, such as Ládafia (‘From an Old Chest’), Volumes 1 and 2, the Twelve Easy Piano Pieces, the easier Piano Sonatinas and others find their rightful place in the sphere of piano education. My measure was two immortal works, Schumann’s Album für die Jugend and Bartók’s Gyermekeknek (‘For Children’).

What did I find important when composing the piano pieces? The same as I do when composing any of my works. Small piece? Big piece? It doesn’t matter! Its form has to be whole, beautiful, interesting and appealing, so that anyone can pick it up with a feeling of joy. The musical material of the piece has to permeate the form; indeed, it has to become one with it. It has to sound as natural as if it were this way since the beginning of time, without alterations. A musical piece starts with its title—the title has to pave the way for imagination. The right title helps the musician practising and performing the piece. It has to evoke genuine emotions. The diversity of the music, and its titles, recalls the abundance of a springtime meadow, gives us a feeling of richness, inspires a sense of adventure in us and touches our heart. The work needs to have surprises, unexpected turns, maybe even secrets in store. The built-up anticipation has to be satisfied. If you played it once, you should feel the need to play it again. If the young performer hits a wrong note, he should be able to notice it and correct it himself.

Sándor Balassa

I was introduced to the music of Sándor Balassa when I was twelve years old, and a student at the Bartók Secondary School of Music, where I was invited to join the audience award jury at the Hungarian Radio’s 1971 showcase of contemporary recordings. I cannot forget the Requiem written to words by Lajos Kassák, the enthusiasm with which it was welcomed by the audience, and how the piece won first prize with unquestionable superiority—just as it was extremely successful in later international competitions.

The 81-year-old composer kindly put his trust in me: he asked me to record all of his piano works. As I was present at the outstanding concert premiere of his opera, Földindulás (‘Landslide’), I would have said yes right away if I had not been so cautious, because I had not played contemporary music since my early youth. I asked for the scores and for time to think it over, as a matter of formality. I found an even more surprising and pleasant diversity in them than I expected, which made me want to play the music even more. Balassa’s lyrical compositional style and his sophisticated application of tone and timbre (he taught orchestration at the Budapest Academy of Music) lends a unique style to all his works, from the earliest opuses of his formative period to the neo-Classicism of his latest works. The difficulty of the pieces—from Ládafia (‘From an Old Chest’) to Fantázia (‘Fantasia’)—is quite diverse, and do not give the impression that they were not written by a professional pianist. The opera composers’ devotion to form presents itself in the arrangement of the short children’s pieces into cycles. These miniatures could easily claim their rightful place in the curriculum of music schools, as some of them are already gaining popularity in music education.

Apart from the piano works, the composer also gave me the score of his solo piece for harp, Északi ajándék (‘A Gift from the North’), which I liked so much that it became the first piece by the composer that I performed in front of an audience. I also asked for the score of his other harp piece and his works for cimbalom. They all turned out to be very enjoyable pieces to play on the piano, their somewhat unusual textures making for a decidedly interesting soundscape.

I heartily recommend these works for everyone to listen to or play, as I am certain that everyone will find in them as much pleasure as I did when I was learning them!

István Kassai


The first track of this first volume is also one of the composer’s first pieces written for the piano, entitled Öt Testvér, Op. 5 (‘Five Brothers’) (1960, revised in 1994). The five brothers symbolise the human hand, the cooperation of the five fingers and its creative power. Besides the naive voice of the ‘beginner’ composer, the style of the cycle also preserves a touch of contemporary avant-garde influence. The first, pondering movement is followed by a cheeky, jocular second, and a grotesque, brutal third movement. The fourth movement evokes a rural atmosphere, and the fifth is a prayer with a longer ricercar middle section. The closing section of the movement and the cycle gives a sense of finding peace, and it is also used in a shorter form later, as the second movement of the Harp Sonatina, Op. 47. The piece is dedicated to the outstanding Hungarian concert pianist and piano teacher Marianne Ábrahám.

The seven pieces entitled Levelek a rezervátumból, Op. 87 (‘Letters from The Reservation’) were written for the cimbalom, a dulcimer played with hammers. With the consent of the composer they are played here on the piano with the fifth movement re-arranged for this version. The cycle was written in a period of the composer’s life when he had reason to feel isolated and excluded from the musical scene. The soft lament of the first two pieces is followed by a defiant, brisk toccata, and a beggar’s song. The only ray of sunshine in this reservation is the dynamic fifth movement. The idyllic, pastoral atmosphere of the sixth movement is continuously interrupted by mordant dissonances before it fades into nothing. The seventh movement does not bring relief either—this fast toccata is not a dance, it chills. Paradoxically, these dark pieces make for a very enjoyable piano cycle, characterised by a unique texture due to being written for cimbalom. The cycle is dedicated to two renowned pupils of virtuoso Aladár Rácz, Ferenc Gerencsér and József Szalai, who were the first classical cimbalom duo in Hungary, and possibly in the world.

The powerful pair of movements intended for the concert podium, 2 Zongoradarab, Op. 137 (‘2 Piano Pieces’) was written in a classical style. Balassa rarely composed music without programme or title, and this is one of his exceptions. The work speaks a purely musical language; its form, structure and motives are clear, and the music is straightforward regardless of its occasionally complicated counterpoint. Giving it a title would probably be unnecessary. The work is dedicated to Sándor Falvai, professor of piano performance and, for a while, dean of the Liszt Academy; the composer based the work on his technical skill and powers of intellect.

The 28 easy piano pieces of Ládafia (‘From an Old Chest’), Volume 1, Op. 113 and Volume 2, Op. 120 are prominent among Balassa’s pieces written for young pianists. The pieces range from easy to intermediate in difficulty, and are therefore excellent works for use in teaching primary-level piano lessons (approximately for ages eight to sixteen). The pieces do not follow each other in order of increasing difficulty, but are arranged according to compositional and aesthetic factors, their diversity being implied by their titles. These refer to the speed or character of the music, such as Allegretto, Legato, ‘Horns and Trumpets’, ‘Gently and Fiercely’, to genres including Pastorale, Study, Prelude, Capriccio, Dance Music, Postlude, and are sometimes descriptive, for example ‘A Peculiar Face’, ‘A Pea’, ‘Tunnel Vision’, ‘Hopscotch’, ‘Strange Couple’, or poetic, with ‘Message’, ‘Horizon’, ‘Light Summer Breeze’, ‘Coming Down the Hill’, ‘Request Denied’, ‘Secret Garden’). Volume 1 is dedicated to the concert pianist and former head of piano at the Béla Bartók Secondary School of Music, Edit Hambalkó.

The last piece on the album, Szonatina No. 1 is prominent among the composer’s piano works. It is the fifth work of Iskolai hangjegyfüzet, Op. 23 (‘School Music Book’), a collection of instrumental and vocal pieces. The first two movements of the Szonatina are in song form with recurring themes. In the first, a counterpoint structure is dominant, featuring a sequence of duets and polyphony. The second, is a fierce march with a graceful, Baroquelike middle section in 3/4. The third, slow movement is a valse triste, and the fourth is written in rondo form. The sweeping momentum of the rondo theme is followed by the ungainly dance of the first episode. The rondo theme comes back after a brief halt, and the swirls and curves of the second episode lead to a short cadenza. The third recurrence of the rondo theme is rounded off by a short, recapitulatory coda. The Szonatina is dedicated to the Magyar Nemzeti Társaskör (‘Hungarian National Social Club’).

István Kassai

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