“These beautiful little gems, with their close harmony and evocation of day yielding to peaceful night are, for me, the highlights of this immensely enjoyable recording.”
“Worthy and committed performances”
Timothy Bell, Classic CD
- Conductor: Jeremy Backhouse
- Organist: Jeremy Filsell
- Soloists: Sally Barber (Soprano), Francis Reid (Alto), Andrew Isherwood (Tenor), Andrew Angus (Baritone)
- Hungarian Language Coach: Kate Catleugh
Released by Guild, September 1999
- Recorded at St.John the Divine, Duncan Terrace, Islington, London, May 1999
Zoltán Kodály Choral Works
This recording of music by the Hungarian composer Kodaly is the first time I have had the pleasure of hearing The Vasari Singers. And a pleasure it has most definitely been. For anyone who doesn’t know, this is a London-based chamber choir, and winners of the 1988 Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year competition.
Missa Brevis is an impassioned work, and its title is somewhat misleading, as this is no brief interpretation of the mass. Written during the Second World War, it received its first performance in 1945 in Budapest, immediately after the siege, in the Opera House, where Kodaly and his wife had been sheltering. The only undamaged part of the building was the cloakroom, so that’s where it was sung.
Complete with organ solos at the beginning and end, the pain of Kodaly’s experiences is only too abundant in the music. Phrases such as ‘Lord have mercy’, and ‘Crucified for us’, seethe with the agony he must have felt at first hand. At ‘He suffered and was buried’, the basses drop to subterranean levels, and we feel the earth closing in about us. Ultimately, though, this is a work of hope, with more than four minutes given to ‘Grant us Thy peace’ in Agnus Dei.
Laudes Organi is the last large-scale work Kodaly wrote, and draws its inspiration from such disparate sources as Bach, Gregorian chant, and Hungarian folk-song. The vibrant Latin text provides much opportunity for vocal word painting, sometimes perhaps a little obvious, but nevertheless charming.
The choir is at its best, though, in the unaccompanied pieces, Evening Song and Evening. These beautiful little gems, with their close harmony and evocation of day yielding to peaceful night are, for me, the highlights of this immensely enjoyable recording.
The opening of this disc was quite a shock, as I wasn’t expecting to hear an organ with such a French sound and phrase freedom. The first few bars are positively boiling. Jeremy Filsell’s playing throughout is masterly too.
Kodály seems to have been in the doldrums lately, but it is, after all, 32 years since he died, so perhaps he can expect a revival soon. He certainly deserves one, as his music is harmonically colourful, has plenty of variety, plenty of melody and lots of drama. I well remember Kodály visiting Oxford in about 1960. He was being shewn round the Faculty of Music by a very powerful elderly lady and Dr H K Andrews was heard to exclaim “it’ll be a splendid thing for him when he gets back to the comparative freedom of the iron curtain”!
The motets and the Mass alike on this disc are well worth hearing (just try Laudes organi on the first track or the glorious Pange lingua on track three) and especially in performances of this stature – the choir is splendid (and it is a measure of the care taken in producing this recording that the singers have been specially coached to sing in Hungarian). Even if the choral singing was not on the highest level of technique, colour and drama, which it certainly is (just listen to the wonderfully atmospheric Kyrie of the Mass), the disc would be worth buying for the organ alone, so don’t hesitate! Now, please can someone produce an equally good recording of the Budavari Te Deum.
Worthy and committed performances
Here is a useful compilation of Zoltán Kodály’s major works for chorus with organ accompaniment, along with two a cappella pieces – Este Dal (Evening Song) and Este (Evening). Both of these are sung in Hungarian, the first based on a folksong, whilst the second is a youthful setting of a poem by one of Kodály’s teachers. It is in these unaccompanied compositions that the Vasari Singers are heard to their best advantage, with limpid singing, sensitive phrasing and good blending within and between parts.
With the presence of the organ, whether as a result of balancing or other difficulties, the choir seems less at ease, with individual voices obtruding, and a number of the more forceful passages sounding under-powered. The Missa brevis is the longest work included here, and there is much competition on disc, not least from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, on EMI. But the performances, overall, are committed and responsive.
Performance: 4 stars
Sound: 4 headphones
Kodály’s choral music dominates his output and everywhere on these recordings, both of which are focused on the 1945 revision of the Missa brevis for organ, soloists and choir, there is abundant evidence of his expertise. Though tonal, at times strongly modal and direct in idiom, there is much subtlety in his settings, notably in the luxurious textures of Evening, his first published chorus, and the evocative Matra Pictures; in short, a marvellous resource for choirs.
Although the two performances of the Mass are quite different, the honours in terms of quality are more or less equal. The Danish National Radio Choir makes a fine sound with some lovely rich alto voices; just occasionally the vocal lines are slightly fragmented, and some may find the portamento a little excessive. The Vasari Singers, recorded in a less resonant acoustic, produce clean lines and give a pervasive feeling in the Mass that more is being communicated than just atmosphere, but the Danish choir in general provides the more homogeneous sound. One outstanding feature of the Vasari’s recording is the magnificent organ playing of Jeremy Filsell, especially in Laudes organi. A choice to be made on taste rather than quality.
Perfoormance: 3 stars
Sound: 3 stars