Zsolt Durkó: Hungaroton SLPX 11607

On more than one occasion, Ambergreen Classical has had in stock a particular recording I’ve been unable to find anywhere else. If you’re after a particular contemporary classical LP, I suggest you give them a try.

.Durko - Fire Music LPRecently for me this was the Hungaroton LP (SLPX 11607) featuring Zsolt Durkó’s Fire Music, Iconography nos. 1 and 2, and Altamira, an LP I’ve been after since I started collecting Hungaroton’s contemporary recordings from the 60s and 70s. The works on the recording date from 1968 to 1971, a period when Durkó was beginning to achieve what small breakthrough he achieved in the UK. Indeed, Fire Music was commissioned and first performed by Peter Maxwell Davies’ Fires of London, one of the leading British contemporary music ensembles of the period. On the handful of occasions when his name made it into the British music press, critics were looking for the successor to Bartók and Hungary’s response to the recent successes of Polish music – Ligeti was assumed to be ex-Hungarian by this stage, and Kurtág was yet to make his mark on these shores. Interestingly, the Kurtág connection extends into much of the language used when talking about Durkó’s music: at the end of a survey article on the composer’s music for Tempo in 1968, Stephen Walsh writes of ‘a composer of intense musical feeling, economical in thought and expression’; five years later in the same journal he writes, of the wind quintet Improvvisazioni (1965), ‘the appearance of the printed score is itself unmistakable: tiny, decorative phrases, peculiar to the instruments which first play them, and seemingly unrelated to one another; a certain air of extravagance and ostentation, of gesture elevated into statement … The oboe phrase quoted is characteristic of Durkó’s ability to make four or five notes tell in a completely personal way.’ And although not noted at the time, the musical passage quoted bears a marked resemblance to the opening bars of Kurtág’s opus 1 String Quartet of 1956.

Another LP of his music, SLPX 11363 (also on my want list), featuring Psicogramma, Symbols, Una rapsodia ungherese and Fioriture was reviewed for Tempo by Bill Hopkins in 1971, and the joint UNESCO-sponsored disc of Szöllösy, Durkó and Bozay drew a certain amount of notice. However, I’m not aware of any British review of the 11607 recording, which is a shame, because it represents more recent and more mature works of Durkó’s than Walsh’s 1968 survey, the 11363 recording, or the Endellion’s performance of Improvvisazioni and would have illustrated a certain development in Durkó’s progress as a composer. But that review never happened, and what British interest there was in new Hungarian music turned briefly to Szöllösy (Concerto no.3, perf. 1975-6), then Balassa (Iris, perf. 1976, 1979), and at the start of the 1980s, Kurtág finally assumed for once and for all his role as figurehead for new Hungarian composition; Durkó, Szöllösy, Balassa and the rest were suddenly surplus to requirements.

Actually, Durkó’s music on this LP is by some distance inferior to Kurtág’s of the same period, but it should not be ignored for that. Durkóo was composing in a style that is probably best described as expressionist, although it is very approachable music. He has a respect for melody within a modern context that might owe something to Bartók, but is also a reflection of the return to melody that contemporary music took in general in the 1970s. Durkó’s language is primarily gestural, and he shows an imaginative ear for timbre and juxtapositions of timbre, but the musical argument, on the whole, remains clear if perhaps not terribly profound. (Durkó has a particularly fondness for rapid passagework, which gives a light scherzo quality to a lot of music and sometimes robs it of depth.) The best works here are perhaps the outer two – the larger forces of Altamira (choir and orchestra, rather than small chamber ensemble) give it a weightier sonic impact. Fire Music also feels just that much more serious than either of the Iconographies. However, I’ve no idea why the piano for this piece hasn’t been tuned properly. Did they use an aging upright? – it lends a faint air of church hall to the proceedings…

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