ANHALT: 4 Portraits from Memory. …the timber of those times… (…a theogony…) / Hungarian Radio Symphony Orch.; Ajtony Csaba, cond / Centrediscs CMCCD 26419
This album presents the unusual music of István Anhalt, a Hungarian-Jewish composer who fled to France in 1946 and then, unusually, to Canada in 1949. In the latter country he was professor of music at McGill University, founded that school’s Electronic Music Studio, and lived to the age of 92. He was a particular friend of American composer George Rochberg and was considered by many to be the “heavyweight” among Canadian composers.
From the very opening of 4 Portraits from Memory, we realize that we’re not in the usual world of Canadian music, which tends to be pastoral in nature even when using modern harmonies. Anhalt’s music is considerably edgier, uses bright, almost cutting wind and string sonorities, and is more consistently bitonal in character. The first of the four portraits, “Instead of…,” moves at a lugubrious pace and has the typical Hungarian feeling of darkness about it. The same dark mood permeates the second piece, “A dirge,” which inexplicably ends in the middle of nowhere while the third, “…for a friend who lived true to the good name…,” opens with stark, bitonal piano chords before moving into atonal strings at the one-minute mark and then back to solo piano. The strings come and go in this one to add color. The last piece, “Light…shade…and in between” opens with forlorn chimes, then a long-held note on the French horn which later leaps up and down an octave while a tuba plays in the background. The music slowly becomes more complex as a trumpet and other voices are added. This one also grows louder and louder in volume as it progresses.
…the timber of those times… opens with repeated loud E chords with the violins playing the fifths above. Other instruments enter as the texture becomes more complex and eventually moves off the E major and into other harmonic realms. Although also in a slow tempo and developing quite slowly, there is more going on here. Eventually the tempo increases as well, and by the end of the first piece the brass is quite loud. In the second piece, titled “The Procession,” Anhalt opens with pounding drums as the orchestra increases the tempo and plays a strong, fast march beat. Halfway through, the tempo relaxes as the winds and strings play a lyrical passage before increasing the speed once again. The third piece, “The Lame Wizard and the Mechanical Bride,” features the percussionist banging on an anvil while heavy brass and winds move in a clumsy fashion in the foreground, occasionally interspersed with strings. This is also the most strongly rhythmic piece on the CD to this point and later contains a lengthy, primarily rhythmic violin solo.
Next is “The Warrior and the Foam Goddess,” another slow, moody piece, but here enlivened by jangling percussion instruments and, later, blaring bitonal trumpet fanfares. The excitement, however, eventually wanes, only to return as the strings become louder, accompanied by timpani, and more edgy brass figures are heard.
We end with “…a guide of souls…,” which opens with swirling, atonal string figures against which loud brass and what sounds like a bongo drum play. The music becomes more and more agitated, albeit with lulls for contrast; the piano re-enters playing whole-tone scale notes which come and go. The music again ends in the middle of nowhere.
Although I could follow and understand what Anhalt was doing in the 4 Portraits, I found that music much less interesting than …the timber of those times…, yet I look forward to hearing more music by this very interesting composer in the future.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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