"Great Panache, the whole set simply reeks charm”
It is inevitable that in a complex musical world, some composers will slip under the radar screen. Thanks to this disc, my personal antennae will in future be attuned to catching more sightings of Ferenc Farkas (1905-2000), a Hungarian composer whose life neatly spanned the twentieth century. Belonging to the generation sandwiched between the explosion that was Bartòk and Kodàly, and the avant-garde luminaries Ligeti and Kurtàg (the latter were both pupils of his at some stage), perhaps it is not so surprising, but it is a great shame that only a few pieces out of his seven-hundred-odd have ever made it to the repertoire. In addition to being Hungarian to his roots (he went folksong collecting with the best of them), he also studied with Respighi, whose melodiousness and command of orchestration obviously rubbed off.
Not to beat about the bush, the man's technical brilliance is astonishing - a rock-solid craftsmanship allied to a plentiful musical inventiveness. And if any instrumental combination could challenge this, it would surely be the wind quintet, a medium that composers overall have not exactly rushed to embrace. Five completely heterogeneous wind instruments are a challenge to anyone's technique.
This disc begins with the Serenade, which lives up to its title, and is sunnily tackled by the Pheobus Quintet, a youthful (if the inlay photos do not lie) mostly German group, in which Farkas throws down to gauntlet to many of the (particularly) French composers who have produced similar pieces. It is only marred by hornist Martin Roos being not quite safe with the terrifyingly high horn solo in the third movement. Against that, I have to say that not being a particular fan of the flute, I was nevertheless drawn to Christoph Bösch's often near-vibratoless sound.
Quattro Pezzi is for the unusual combination of the quintet with double-bass soloist. Bassist Dieter Lange could have been placed more forward in the mix, the better to appreciate his clean, articulate playing. This is a darker, more “academic” work than the “Serenade”, not as immediately tuneful but giving the bass a genuine leading part and above all taking it seriously and putting it through its paces. The result should I hope catch the ears of a few bassists - it surely must be a candidate for their repertoire.
The Fruit Basket is a setting of children's poems by Sàndor Weöres, and starts with a tune sounding like “Ten Green Bottles” [listen - track 8. 0:01-0:19] (was this originally a Hungarian folk tune?) before giving us a variety of settings, including some genuinely lovely melodies [listen - track 10. 0:01-0:25]. Farkas's invention in these settings is everything you could wish for, entering the fantastical world of children without being remotely condescending - a talent relatively few composers have had. Mezzo Ulrike Schneider could also have been placed more forward, but gives unaffected and characterful performances of these songs. Infused with Hungarian folkloric, from the offbeat tone-painting of “The Frog King” [listen - track 16, 0:00-0:35] to the folksy “Noon Clouds” [Listen - track 19, 0:01-0:33], Farkas demonstrates his worthiness to be placed alongside the likes of Milhaud, Poulenc or Françaix in this medium - the whole set simply reeks charm.
Old Hungarian Dances of the 17th Century is unbelievably the only piece to have made the repertoire. Listening to the opening [track 20, 0:01-0:35] one is immediately reminded of the Respighi of the “Ancient Airs and Dances”, but Farkas (in fact in many different versions he made of this piece) gives us the Hungarian equivalent, carried out with flair and care. Listen to sheer craftmanship at work [track 24, 0:55-1:25].
The Rondo capriccio for violin and wind quintet is the meatiest piece on the album. Quite apart from the unusual scoring, Farkas uses his own version of serial technique, the result sounding nothing like Schoenberg or his camp followers though; it's dancey, rhythmically alive, Hungarian, edgy and interesting. A dramatic slow central section [listen - track 25, 2:59-4:16] contains a dark melody of real heart and pathos. This deserves to be much better known, but probably won't be due to the far from standard scoring.
Finally, in the Lavottiana, Farkas rescues Janos Lavotta from 18th century obscurity by recreating the world of the Hungarian early Biedermeier period. A Hungarian-flavoured take
on familiar 18th century styles, Kodàlyish elements are infused with the elegance of the period. Farkas keeps the orchestration interesting (and not always obvious), and the Phoebus Quintet rip through it all with great panache and high spirits.
Any wind quintet which doesn't take at least some of this music into its pad is selling itself badly short.
Toccata Classics maintains its production values: booklet in four languages (complete with
song texts), good background on the composer from Martin Anderson and notes on the pieces by the man himself, biographies of the artists, sparkling recordings and high quality playing. You couldn't ask for more, and it just makes you realise that it's true what they say: forget the majors, it's the dedicated, music-driven indies who are doing the real work. Thank you all concerned, for giving me Ferenc Farkas.
Copyright © 4 October 2007 Paul Sarcich, London UK
With his near-contemporaries Laszlo Lajtha (1892–1963) and Miklós Rózsa (1907–1995), Farkas belongs to the “missing link” generations bridging the gap between the maturity of Bartók and Kodály, and the emergence of the younger generation, including Ligeti, Kurtag, Petrovics, Szokolay and Durkó, who were among his pupils in Budapest. A quick look at the Farkas website (www.ferencfarkas.org) shows that his music is reasonably well represented in commercial recordings (mostly from Hungaroton), although I suspect that much of it is still to be committed to disc.
The various works here span some thirty years of his long and prolific composing life. All but one of these pieces belong to what might be referred to as folk-inflected Neo-classicism, and none the worse for that, since the music is extremely appealing, superbly crafted and warmly expressive.
Antiche danze ungheresi del 17. secolo, also often referred to as Old Hungarian Dances, is probably Farkas’s best-known and most popular work outside his native Hungary. This unpretentious, colourful and attractive work often brings one of Farkas’s teachers to mind: Respighi whose Antiche danze ed arie per liuto most likely served as Farkas’s model while composing this most enjoyable and entertaining piece. The slightly earlier Serenade was composed for Zoltán Jeney, the flautist of the Budapest Wind Quintet. By the way, he was the father of the Hungarian twins for whom Britten composed his Gemini Variations Op.73. This lovely work is a marvellous example of Farkas’s folk-tinged Neo-classicism.
Lavottiana draws on tunes written by the Hungarian fiddler János Lavotta (1764–1820), and is a reworking of the Lavotta Suite for chamber orchestra of 1951. Some of these tunes display a striking similarity to those used or alluded to by Kodály in Hary Janos. It is another attractive piece; perhaps a bit too much of a good thing for some tastes.
Quattro Pezzi for double bass and wind quintet (originally for double bass and piano, but there’s also a version for cello and piano) was written for Farkas’s son András. It is a short suite of four character sketches, in which the double bass displays its wide expressive and tonal range. There are not that many pieces for double bass, so Quattro Pezzi should come as a pleasant surprise and a most welcome addition to the repertoire.
Gyümölcskosár (“Fruit Basket Songs”) is a short cycle setting delightfully simple children’s poems by Sándor Weöres. It, too, exists in several versions, but the one heard here is simply miraculous. The music is by turns tender, slightly ironic, humorous and deeply moving for all its simplicity. The composer responds to the many moods suggested by the words with nicely characterised musical miniatures. All these settings are disarmingly (and often deceptively) simple, and – as a result – never outstay their welcome. This is the real gem in this release.
As mentioned earlier in this review, one of the works here does not readily fit with what I described as Farkas’s folk-inflected Neo-classicism. The Rondo capriccio for violin and wind quintet - originally a duo for violin and piano composed in 1957 and arranged in 1959, not 1966 as stated on the back cover - reminds us that Farkas was no stranger to modern idioms. He too composed twelve-tone works such as Prelude and Fugue of 1947. Although in no way rebarbative, the music obviously inhabits a more austere and stringent harmonic world than the other works, although it is again strongly expressive.
I thoroughly enjoyed this generously filled, superbly played and well recorded release. Why is music such as this not heard more often, let alone recorded? Where would we be without all these smaller, independent and enterprising labels who bravely record unfamiliar, but generously rewarding repertoire? In short, full marks to all concerned. A really lovely disc to be enjoyed from first to last.