Hungary's Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) may not have been the equal of his friend and compatriot Bela Bartok when it came to writing music of stature and foresight. Where, for example, in the former's vast output is there anything to equal "Bluebeard's Castle," the six Bartok quartets or the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta?
But he takes a back seat to no one when it comes to incorporating the folk idiom of his homeland in his own compositions, and that ability is nowhere more agreeably on display than in the orchestral pieces listed above. In short, it's no accident that three decades after his death, these are still his most popular, and most-recorded, works.Though it bears a 1995 English copyright, the Dutoit recording appears to be reaching our shores for the first time. At 77 minutes, it's a generous collection, aided by the evocative playing of the Montreal Symphony and the sumptuous recorded sound.
Indeed, in places things strike me as overly sumptuous, for example the luxuriant orchestral "sneeze" with which "Hary Janos" opens and the same suite's somewhat softened "Intermezzo." If you want to hear how this music should go, check out fellow Hungarians Antal Dorati (particularly his mid-'50s Mercury recording) and Istvan Kertesz, still my top choices in this repertoire.
On the other hand, neither of them finds as much atmosphere in the cimbalom-laden "Song," here of near-Repighian richness, and I also like the flavorful brass in "The Battle and Defeat of Napolean." By contrast, Levi's performances, though they have more edge, seem comparatively straight - sort of an American view of Kodaly, if you will.
And so it goes. With their polished straightforwardness, Levi's "Galanta Dances" are at their best in the propulsive final sections, as opposed to Dutoit's greater emotional expanse. And although Levi makes the "Peacock" Variations bigger and more important-sounding, that is sometimes achieved at the cost of their freshness and charm.
Where Telarc does score, however, is in the area of recorded sound, maybe even better than Mercury's "Living Presence." Also, unlike Dutoit, they provide separate track access to each of the "Peacock" Variations. Still, I prefer London's balancing of the cimbalom and their inclusion of the "Marosszek Dances." Given his generally slower tempos, that might have pushed the timing of Levi's disc to the limit, but it does make for a decisive bonus.