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In the Studio: Kodaly’s kaleidoscope of Hungarian heritage.

May 11, 2017

On April 23 and 24, 2017, the Buffalo Philharmonic and their music director JoAnn Falletta undertook a highly enjoyable project of recording orchestral showpieces by Zoltán Kodály. Not often played today, the four works on the programme literally turned the Philharmonic into a gypsy band, reveling in the Hungarian melodies that came right from the soil of Kodály’s beloved homeland.

Over a ten year period, the young Kodály had embarked on extensive trips into the Hungarian countryside, searching for and documenting authentic folk music that had never been written down. Traveling into the smallest villages, seeking out the oldest people, spending time in the taverns and in the streets, he saved Hungary’s authentic musical folk tradition from oblivion. Along with his colleague Béla Bartók, he immersed himself in the music and the life of the poorest, simplest people of his country, learning firsthand of their spirit and warmth. Both composers felt that, in the end, they learned much more than just about the music—they learned the true meaning of life and humanity. Their efforts resulted in a series of authoritative and comprehensive folk song collections, and these songs permeated their own original concert music with the earthy essence of the Hungarian soul, Magyar and gypsy.

Dances of Marosszék conjures up a portrait for the listener of the “fairy tale country” of Transylvania, renowned not only for Dracula but also for its gorgeous woodlands, streams and waterfalls. Originally written for piano, Kodály orchestrated the composition in 1930 and gave the symphonic repertoire an authentic jewel filled with expressive melodies, hypnotic woodwind solos, and jubilant virtuosity. The piece brims with dizzying rubato and extraordinary charm; it’s also great fun to play!

Dances of Galánta evokes even more strongly the world of the Hungarian gyspy, based as it is upon Kodály’s childhood village. Galánta had been home to a very famous gypsy band since the 18th century, and Kodály remembered their playing as the first musical sound he ever heard. He grew up and played with the gypsy children and learned their songs and dances, so when he was asked to write a piece to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic in 1933, he decided to create a virtuoso evocation of that gypsy band of his childhood. Filled with astonishing improvisations, syncopations, slow songs, wild dances, extraordinary woodwind melodies and bravura string passages, Dances of Galánta is one of the most thrilling and colourful pieces ever written for symphony orchestra.

Kodály’s masterful Peacock Variations, composed in 1938 for the Concertgebouw Orchestra, is a work of true genius. Based on an ancient Hungarian folk song with a cryptic text—

The peacock flew over the prison and freed the prisoners;
The peacock flew over the prison and did not free the prisoners.

—it is a moving Hungarian elegy on the subject of freedom, the peacock being the symbol of Hungarian liberation. Built on a pentatonic scale, the piece presents 16 ingenious and widely imaginative variations on that melody, ending with an incredible, joyous finale. A stunning tribute to the character and creativity of the Hungarian people, Béla Bartók called it “the most perfect embodiment of Hungarian music”

The last work on the recording, and the most rarely played, was written in 1940 for the Chicago Symphony. Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra fell out of the public eye and was largely neglected after the world premiere, yet it is a vibrant piece of boundless energy and beautiful melodic invention, inspired of course by indigenous folk music of great colour and passion. The Buffalo Philharmonic librarians Pat Kimball and Travis Hendra were very fortunate to find parts that were heavily hand-marked with suggestions the composer himself had made following the first performance; in this regard, both the orchestra and conductor felt that they had Zoltán Kodály himself imparting advice to them. Having this record of his changes and suggestions, they were able to incorporate them into the performances and the recording.

Kodaly’s music is truly a profession of faith in Hungary, and in the inherent goodness of humanity. JoAnn Falletta and the BPO musicians hope that their recording might inspire many more performances of these incredible works, along with the joy of being transformed into a gypsy band!

Thanks and congratulations go to all involved in the project—to the superb musicians, the librarians, producer Tim Handley, and to the man at the helm, Klaus Heymann, chairman of Naxos.

Wind section
Trumpet section
French Horn section
String section
Tim Handley &
JoAnn Falletta

JoAnn Falletta Biography & Discography

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Background & Discography

Zoltán Kodály Biography & Discography


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