BARATI:  Symphony No. 1 "Alpine Symphony."  Chant of Darkness.  Chant of Light.
Budapest Symphony Orch/Lászlo Kováks, cond.  Czech Radio Symphony Orch/Vladimir Válek, cond.

NAXOS 8.559063 (B) (DDD) TT:  61:57

A bit of goulash. It's surprising how many first-class twentieth-century composers and physicists have come from Hungary. Had it not been for Hitler and Stalin, Hungary and not the United States might well have been the great nuclear power in the world. We all know Bartók and Kodály, but we should also take into account Dohnányi, Rózsa, and (by culture and training, at any rate) Ligeti. Barati studied with Kodáy and Leo Weiner at Budapest's Ferenc Liszt Academy. In the United States, he studied with Roger Sessions.

Barati enjoyed a considerable academic career and founded his own ensemble for contemporary music. His activities were especially notable on the West Coast. His composing idiom is a kind of mixed bag, owing much to a Bartókian approach to dissonance and form, but without a noticeable folk element, and a Sessions concern with the long, serious line. His recorded music has hung around the fringes of the catalogue, despite its acclaim during his life. Much of his work has struck me as well-written but uninvolving. Certainly, that faint praise damns the symphony. I can appreciate the clarity of the orchestration and the skilled development of ideas, even though the ideas themselves don't really engage me. He could be working out a crossword puzzle, and a whiff of the textbook runs through the score. One gets the impression of a man who, like the American writer Bayard Taylor, has the technique to say anything, but who hasn't yet figured out what he really must say.

However, the two Chants, from the end of his life, tell another story. Barati wrote them both in response to the dying and death of his daughter from breast cancer. The Chant of Darkness (1993) comes first, and the composer intended it as the outpouring of grief. Its corkscrew melodies twist like little knives mainly in half-steps, minor thirds, and tritones. One hears anger as well as lament. But both attain a rare dignity while the wound is still fresh. The program notes describe the work as unremittingly dark, and certainly whatever consolation it offers tends toward heroic stoicism in the wake of near-unbearable loss. Chant of Light (1994-95) tries to salve the pain. The bleak beginning makes it clear that Barati has little interest in sentimental solutions, since it sounds like a continuation of Chant of Darkness. Barati again faces his loss without illusions, and one begins to wonder what sort of comfort he can find. Just before the half-way point, the music takes on a quick scherzo character -- hardly consoling, but at least a change from, in effect, a constant dead march. The dead march, however, does return, and in relatively short order. Nevertheless, roughly five minutes from the end, the melodic atoms begin to change from minor seconds to major seconds and from tritones to perfect fourths and fifths. In other words, the sound changes from ground glass getting rubbed into a wound to something slightly mellower, if not exactly comfortable. The chant ends again on an heroic note, perhaps because heroism is the only sort of "light" possible to a man so clear-eyed.

Naxos's series of "American Classics" has done wonderful exploratory work shining a beam on the highways and byways of late Romantic and Modern American music. They haven't kept with the tried and true and indeed have unearthed music from most parts of the cultural spectrum. At bargain prices, you can discover for yourself music other than the umpteenth version of Appalachian Spring from other than the usual suspects. The performances here are very good. I like to believe the composer would have enjoyed them. The Hungarians make as good a case as possible for the symphony and do very well indeed with the Chant of Light. They give one a sense of each work's coherence, and in the latter, they manage to sing as well. The Czechs match them in the Chant of Darkness.

The sound is perhaps a little too forward and bright, but still acceptable.

S.G.S. (April 2002)