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Kodaly: Te Deum; Psalmus Hungaricus; Bartok: Cantata Profana

Kodaly: Te Deum; Psalmus Hungaricus; Bartok: Cantata Profana

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The Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra and conductor Lawrence Foster present choral-orchestral works by Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. They join forces with a remarkable group of soloists – including Luiza Fatyol, Roxana Constantinescu, Marius Vlad, Ioan Hotea and Bogdan Baciu – as well as the Junior VIP children’s choir. The album opens with Kodály’s Budavári Te Deum and Psalmus Hungaricus, followed by Bartók’s Transylvanian Dances and culminating in the composer’s Cantata Profana. The latter work, based on ancient myth, was originally conceived in Romanian, but the piece is usually performed in a Hungarian version. This recording reinstates the Romanian original version, retouched by choir conductor Cornel Groza.

In general, this recording by Romanian ensembles of works by Hungarian composers linked to Romanian sources can be seen as an exploration of Romania and Hungary’s shared roots, and of the bicultural nature of Transylvania in particular. Lawrence Foster has a vast Pentatone discography, including several orchestral and complete opera recordings. The Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra so far featured on two Pentatone recordings under the baton of Foster: Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (2021) and Melody Moore’s solo recital Remembering Tebaldi (2023). Roxana Constantinescu featured on Pentatone recordings of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Puccini’s Il tabarro (both 2020), while Marius Vlad appeared on the above-mentioned La Fanciulla del West recording.


One can readily detect a national style in this collection of choral works recently issued by Pentatone, each distinctive and individual if, in the case of Kodály, of uneven inspiration.  Of Psalmus Hungaricus Bartók commented that it ‘could not have been written without Hungarian peasant music’.

[Kodály’s Psalmus] is acclaimed as one of the truly great choral works of the 20th century, and while there’s no shortage of recordings, actual performances today are relatively rare. The Guardian’s Alfred Hickling once observed, ‘Kodály remains a minority taste in this country, lightly dismissed as a kind of low-fat alternative to Bartók’.  A little unfair perhaps considering the emotional punch and drama of Psalmus Hungaricus in which the soloist assumes the role of the betrayed King David, with a supplicant chorus echoing his anguish and indignation.

According to the Kodály authority David Vinden, the Psalmus is a work ‘that sings itself’. Here, the Transylvania State Philharmonic Orchestra and Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir do the work proud. Under the direction of Lawrence Foster (American-born with Rumanian ancestry), the chorus respond fervently to the raging of the persecuted, bitterness giving way to the affirmation of God’s divine retribution. King David’s grievances are articulated mainly by the tenor Marius Vlad, but here his impassioned utterances sound a little too clenched for comfort, and only in the latter stages of the work does a more yielding tone emerge.  While this performance may not achieve the gravitas or emotional intensity of Kodály’s own recording (Hungaroton, 1957), Lawrence Foster’s ear for balance is sure and his tempi well-judged.

Like the Te Deum, Bartók’s Cantata Profana (1930) is another rarity in the concert hall, although moderately well represented on disc. Based on traditional Transylvanian ballads (and sung here in Romanian), it narrates the tale of a hunter’s nine sons who are magically transformed into stags before their integration into the natural world.  The work remains an under-appreciated part of his oeuvre...Bogdan Baciu and Ioan Hotea, as father and son respectively, are impassioned in their solo contributions, manfully facing their extreme pitches.  The chorus are assured and bring considerable energy to their role.

Taking the disc to just over the hour are Bartók’s Transylvanian Dances, orchestral versions of his Sonatina for Piano from 1915 and given characterful performances.  Overall, these accounts are a worthwhile introduction to the composers’ choral works and make attractive couplings that enjoy full texts and translations with excellent sound.

-- Opera Today

Music by two Hungarian composers, and folk-music-collecting friends, performed in Romania conducted by Los Angeles-born (to Romanian parents) Lawrence Foster, makes for an excellent collection, very well recorded at Radio Cluj in May 2022. Kodály’s Budavári Te Deum is lively and exhilarating, with lyrical correspondences to Walton’s Coronation Te Deum, music that speaks directly without artifice, whereas Psalmus Hungaricus is musically of greater intensity and gravitas, performed here with emotional power to compelling effect. Bartók’s orchestral Transylvanian Dances make a flavoursome prelude to his Cantata Profana, recounting a strange tale involving stags, in an atmospheric, dramatic and suspenseful performance. In addition to the choir and orchestra there are, when required, a children’s chorus and five vocal soloists, each of the latter committed to words and music.

-- Colin's Column

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