What with the deaths of Stockhausen, Hitchcock and Peterson in December (and many others), the passing of András Szőllősy on 6th December went almost unnoticed. Coming from the same generation as Kurtág and Ligeti, however, this would not be the first time the Hungarian composer had been overshadowed by his more famous peers.
In fact, Szőllősy was, briefly, better-known than the latter in this country. Before the British première of The Messages of Miss R.V. Troussova on 18th February 1981, Kurtág was almost unknown in Great Britain; what few performances of his music there had been, which included Zoltán Kócsis playing extracts from Játékok, were almost entirely ignored. As Bartók’s posthumous significance and reputation grew, British critics spent most of the 60s and 70s sporadically searching for his Hungarian successor. Ligeti was, at this stage, ruled out on both the grounds of residence and style: not only was a great composer sought, but one who was also unmistakably Hungarian too.
By the late 1970s the efforts of a few supportive critics (including Dominic Gill, Stephen Walsh and John S. Weissmann), seemed to have got, if not quite their man, then at least their school of men. A group of composers, including Szőllősy as well as Sándor Balassa, Attila Bozay and Zsolt Durkó, started to make semi-frequent appearances on the review pages of the British musical press. In an article for the Musical Times at the start of 1981 (‘Messages from Budapest’, Musical Times, cxii (1981), 97–100), Walsh previewed several of the new Hungarian works (including Troussova, Durkó’s Burial Prayer and Szőllősy’s Trasfigurazioni) that would be heard in the forthcoming London season:
New Hungarian music – the music, that is, of the post-Bartók, post-Kodály, post-1956 era – has been nibbling away at the edges of British concert life for a decade or more, without ever really breaking through the outer crust of polite apathy. Thus names like Durkó, Szőllősy and Balassa have grown vaguely familiar to those who frequent new-music concerts, but have hardly managed to establish a definite profile, partly because performances have been few and infrequent and generally (in the nature of things) not of their composers’ most significant or substantial works. The events of this winter therefore represent something of a breakthrough for Hungarian promotion, and, one hopes, also for the music itself.
Regarding Kurtág, Walsh’s predictions could not have been more strongly affirmed: since Troussova his star has risen inexorably, confirmed most recently by the receipt of the 2006 Grawemeyer Award for Concertante op.42. Sadly for those other composers mentioned, Kurtág’s ascent confirmed him at the last as the new Bartók everyone was looking for, and although a worthy claimant his shadow suddenly obscured his contemporaries, who were almost never heard of again in the UK.
Walsh refers to the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Trasfigurazioni (“one of Szőllősy’s best works”) of December 1980, but the composer’s moment in the British sun had already passed with two performances, in 1975 and 1976, of his Concerto no.3 for 16 solo strings (1968). This had already been released on a UNESCO-sponsored recording in 1973, and was the piece that first attracted international notice to Szőllősy’s music. The mid-70s performances drew favourable reviews, including a brief analytical item by Karl Safran for Tempo in 1976, but then that was largely that.
It’s a real shame that Szőllősy’s reputation in Britain didn’t last any longer than this because he remains one of the more interesting of that middle-generation of more mainstream Hungarian composers (by which I omit those members of the Experimental Music Studio, such as Zoltán Jeny and László Sáry, who were doing things in a very different vein). This CD of mid-1970s orchestral works from BMC records is an excellent introduction to Szőllősy’s music, which one could describe as a freer, more expressionistic take on Ligeti’s or Xenakis’s polyphonic sound masses. Musica per orchestra (1972) is particularly impressive. I recommend giving him a go in 2008.