Béla Bartók: Male Choruses – Four old Hungarian Folksongs (BB60); Evening (BB30);Slovak Folksongs (BB77); Székely Folksongs (BB106); From Olden Times (BB112); Four Old Hungarian Folksongs (BB60) revised 1926; Hungarian and Slovak Folk Music. Saint Ephraim Male Choir – Artistic Director Tamás Bubnó with Balázs Szokolay Dongó: flute, bagpipe, tarogato and Márk Bubnó: gardon (percussive cello).
During the first two decades of the 20th Century the tonal basis of classical music – the tyranny of major and minor keys finally collapsed. For Schoenberg and his Viennese followers, the logical progression was the development of serialism, replacing the exhausted principles of tonality with the rigours of the twelve-tone system. Béla Bartók found another way out of the impasse, producing music in which the Germanic tradition was given new life by incorporating it into a strongly nationalistic style. In this, of course, he was not unique. But no other composer who found his voice in this realm managed to produce work in which folk and art music were assimilated with such power and modernity.
This disc treads even further off the beaten path as far as Béla Bartók’s music is concerned. It narrows its vision onto his exquisite Choruses for Male Choir and further, is produced most wondrously, by interspersing the pieces that Béla Bartók wrote with the folksongs that were inspirational to him in writing these pieces. The focus becomes narrower, much to our delight, when the producers decide to record only his earliest and some of his late works, notably BB60 which was written between 1910-12 and then revised in America in 1926. The Saint Ephraim Male Choir lights up the music with their mystical voices, whose heartwarming radiance and clarity reaches levels of poignancy that I have not heard in a really long time. This is not high-flown stuff – none of what Béla Bartók wrote was – but exudes the kind of carefree happiness that Béla Bartók seemed to enjoy in his search for the folksongs themselves and also in the process of incorporating them into his extraordinary music.
The notes tell us that the Choir and its Artistic Director took seven years to perfect this repertoire before deciding to put it down on record. It was well worth the wait. As ever, the Saint Ephraim Male Choir and Tamás Bubnó are excellent, their collective experience practicing this repertoire has stood them in good stead indeed. They gel as one. You feel you are safe in their hands; but if you think that simply means no surprises, listen to them cut loose in the vaunted BB112 (number 12 on the disc) a no-nonsense fest for the male voices. The rhythmic magic is quite spectacular as is the incredible use of dynamic and male tessitura; something you will not find in many male choirs in Europe or even across the pond, in the Americas.
The Saint Ephraim Male Choir sounds like a very special large body throughout the disc. There are no fluffed entries and no weaknesses. The tenors are particularly impressive, with no sense of strain on the high notes. You cannot really single out anyone because names have been left out of the performances. Suffice it to say that each is properly suppliant and joyful. The two instrumentalists Balázs Szokolay Dongó on flute, bagpipe, tarogato and Márk Bubnó on gardon add plenty not only to the virtuoso performances but also to the magnificent ambience of this masterfully produced disc.
Label: Budapest MC Records
Release date: September 2015
Running time: 62:25
Buy music on: allegro-music.com