Koukl Plays the Odd Music of Harsányi

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WP 2019 - 2HARSÁNYI: 5 Préludes Brefs. La Semaine. Pastorales. Baby-Dancing. 5 Bagatelles. 5 Études Rythmiques. Vocalise-Étude Blues. 6 Pièces Courtes / Giorgio Koukl, pno / Grand Piano GP806

Czech pianist Giorgio Koukl, a pupil of the Prague State Music School & Conservatory, also took part in master classes with Nikita Magaloff, Jacques Février and Rudolf Firkušný, and it was through the latter that he gained his first exposure to the music of Martinů. He once told me via email that “All the composers I’m interested in were expatriates living in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s. I imagine them sitting together at a table in an outdoor café.” Tibor Harsányi (1898-1954) is yet another of them, but he differs from Alexandre Tansman, Arthur Lourié, Alexander Tcherepnin and some others Koukl has played by being Hungarian.

According to the liner notes, Harsányi was born on June 27, 1898 in Magyarkanisza, Harsányi started piano lessons at an early age and later received “technical training” from Zoltan Kodály. He was drafted to serve in the Hungarian army during World War I but happily survived; after the war, he composed his first ballet, Le Dernier Songe, which was performed at the Hungarian National Opera in 1920. He then moved to Vienna, followed by two years in the Netherlands and then back to Budapest before arriving in Paris dead broke (like to many others). He started looking for a publisher interested in young composers, found one in Raymond Deiss, and had his 1925 String Quartet recorded by Quatuor Roth for Columbia. His pieces for piano, of which this is the first installment, have mostly never been recorded before. They consist, the notes tell us, “of around 20 collections of suites, three more abstract pieces – the Rapsodie, Novelette and Sonata – and a few short stand-alone dances or occasional pieces.”

The music in this album comprises seven of these suites of short pieces; there are 40 tracks on the CD, the longest piece being the opening “Lento” of the Préludes Brefs which clocks in at 2:52. Harsányi was, like so many of the expatriate composers living in Paris at the time, influenced at a remove of the entire Atlantic Ocean by American jazz. You can hear a bit of it in the fast Préludes Brefs in his use of rhythm rather than the melodic or harmonic construction, and there is an entire suite, Baby-Dancing, devoted to his conception of what jazz was. Like so many of these composers, however (Erwin Schulhoff was another), Harsányi had no first-hand exposure to jazz, only dance music which he was told was jazz-influenced, thus one will look in vain for anything resembling really swinging pieces. Moreover he, like Schulhoff, had the bizarre idea that waltzes, tangos and something they called “Boston” were jazz dances. This is laughable to an American, because Boston, Massachusetts in the 1920s was one of the least jazz-happy cities in the entire United States. Bostonians of that period hated jazz, and said so in no uncertain terms, privately and in the newspapers. They considered it the music of “degenerates.” Only bandleader Paul Whiteman, who dressed up jazz in white tie and tails and hired classically-trained musicians to play it with a stiff, jerky beat at least until the late 1930s (despite having such jazz giants as Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Jimmy Dorsey and Steve Brown in his band), made any headway with Boston audiences in the 1920s-early ‘30s.

But to return to Harsányi’s music, it is charming, well written and combined the energy and verve of popular dance music with the Hungarian harmonies he had learned from Kodály. Of course, much of this verve emanates from Koukl, who in my experience can make even mediocre music sound great (not that Harsányi’s music is mediocre by any means). One of the interesting things about this set of preludes is that their scores lack any indication of meter despite constant changes; another is that, despite the strong Hungarian flavor of his music, he never actually used any real Hungarian folk tunes as a basis for his compositions. He did, however, throw in a lot of whole-tone scales, which were very popular in the 1920s (Bix Beiderbecke even used them in his improvisations), as well as “leaning” harmonies that shifted and morphed by moving a pivot-note within a chord up or down in the left hand while playing the melody in the right. In short, Koukl has done it again, rediscovered a neglected composer of great interest and, through his enthusiastic playing, made him interesting and vital.

The Pastorale No. 1 has a brief fugue in it and sounds more strictly classical than most of the Préludes while the “Élégie: Allegretto quasi andantino” is a succession of six-note chord phrases played by the right hand that move around in a scalar or whole tone sequence while the left hand provides a single-note bass accompaniment. Harsányi evidently enjoyed toying with different rhythms, sometimes—as in the fourth Pastorale (“Dance”), moving them around in such a way that any attempt to actually dance to this music might result in a pulled quad muscle.

Unlike Schulhoff, who used a steady rhythm in his jazz-influenced pieces but injected some very modern harmonic changes, Harsányi keeps his harmonic base pretty much the same in Baby-Dancing but continues to move the rhythm around in subtle and unexpected ways. Because of this, his “Tango” bears only a superficial resemblance to the Argentinean dance on which it is based. I’d still like someone to explain to me exactly what a “Boston” is, because I’ll be damned if I can figure it out other than it sounds like the novelty piano pieces of the early ‘20s like Zez Confrey’s Kitten on the Keys (which Schulhoff wrote an extraordinary set of variations on), but Harsányi’s version of a Boston is again pretty interesting. One might say, in fairness, that Schulhoff approached jazz rhythm as something he wanted to incorporate without diluting it into many of his piano pieces while Harsányi saw dance rhythm as just another aspect of the music to work his imagination on. In other words, if you were to hire a highly skilled jazz pianist to play their works, Schulhoff’s jazz pieces could swing but Harsányi’s clearly cannot because he is constantly breaking up the meter into tiny little subdivisions, all of which Koukl plays clearly and with great verve but which, when added up, never quite sound like jazz. “Blue,” the most regularly syncopated of these pieces, does sound like hot ragtime at least, but by the one-minute mark Harsányi is again breaking up the rhythm in odd ways and, in the second half, using the odd harmonies to “lean into” the syncopations in a strange way. His “Samba” comes close to sounding like a real samba, but again, not exactly; rather, he created a sort of rhythmic moto perpetuo that continued throughout the piece. Everything was filtered through his own imagination.

I think the above descriptions are sufficient to give the reader an idea of what Harsányi was all about. In short, one should take his movement titles which are named after dances, whether tango or march, with a full bag rather than a grain of salt, because if you expect him to actually give you an undiluted march or tango rhythm you’re going to be disappointed and probably a bit confused. As brief as these pieces are, they are not for the faint of heart. There is so much going on in each and every one of them that it’s almost impossible to describe it all without taking up ten more paragraphs.

Interestingly, there is no biographical information about Harsányi, either in the booklet or at Wikipedia, beyond the early 1930s, though he lived for another 20 years. There is also no personal information about him at all. As far as I know, he was a spirit walker who just magically appeared in Paris, wrote music until about 1947, and then disappeared into the ether without family or friends. Well, maybe it’s better to think of him this way. His music certainly suggests a very odd duck!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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