"THE LAST RECORDINGS" -- BARTÓK: Cantata profana KODÁLY: Psalmus hungaricus WEINER: Serenade
Budapest Festival Orch/Choir of Hungarian Radio & TV/Sir Georg Solti, cond.
London 458 929 (F) (DDD) TT: 59:11 

With the Budapest Festival Orchestra and various choristers, Sir Georg Solti recorded music by the three most influential Hungarian musicians of the 20th Century only weeks before his unexpected—if not untimely—death on September 5, 1997. (He was, after all, preparing to celebrate his 85th birthday on October 21, and intended to conduct these same works at a public concert in Budapest during December.) All are typical, late-Solti performances in thrust and concentration (if late-Solti is to your taste), although not outstanding in a way they might have been had London/Decca recorded them in Chicago during the first decade of his 22-year tenure. An eponymous "Festival Orchestra" plays at the top of its form without sounding world-class, tonally or dynamically. In that regard, the choruses in music of Bartók and Kodály—the Hungarian Radio & TV adult and children's choirs, and the local Schola Cantorum—lend a Magyar accent muted in the orchestra's playing.  

Solti was recording the major works here—Bartók's Cantata profana of 1930, and Kodály's Psalmus hungaricus of 1923 to commemorate the union of Buda and Pest 50 years prior—for the first time, although Pierre Boulez did the Cantata for D.G. with Solti's Chicago Symphony (and added The Wooden Prince, as if to rub it in). Solti asserted increasingly after the middle-'60s, as well as in his posthumously published Memoirs, that he was a pupil of Bartók. But only for six weeks when the composer took over an ailing colleague's classes at the Liszt Academy, even though Solti was recruited to turn pages when Bartók played the premiere of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with wife Ditta. His connection with Kodály was dispassionately academic until the composer's terminal years, when Solti claims they became friendly. The beloved Leó Weiner (1885-1960), least known abroad of the triumvirate here, was a legend at the Liszt Academy; there wasn't a musician who didn't study theory, harmony and chamber music with him, beginning ca. 1900 with his boyhood friend and musical comrade, Fritz Reiner. Creatively, however, Weiner was a conservative Nationalist; what we know of his music outside Hungary is due to the kindness of friends. The F-minor Serenade for Small Orchestra, Op. 3, is no exception—out-of-ear, out-of-mind music by a supremely knowledgeable but parochial composer. 

It needs to be said that Tamás Daróczy, the tenor in two of these pieces—Bartók's "fantasmagoria of nine enchanted stags" (in Nicolas Slonimsky's pithy phrase) and Kodály's celebratory adaptation of Penitential Psalms "in the ancient Magyar manner"—is unlistenable even once. I cannot imagine anyone spending budget, much less full-price to hear him again. Baritone Alexandru Agache fares better. Not only has the recording a coarse, confined acoustic that flatters no one, the disc has room on it for another 18-20 minutes of music.

R.D. (June 1999)