Koukl Plays Harsányi, Vol. 3

GP831 cover

HARSÁNYI: Piano Sonata. 4 Morceaux. Petite Suite Pour Enfants. Piano Suite. Parc d’Attractions Expo: Le tourbillion mécanique. 2 Burlesques. Noveletter. Rhapsodie. 3 Impromptus / Giorgio Koukl, pno / Grand Piano GP831

That intrepid Czech pianist Giorgio Koukl, who in my view is one of the five or six greatest living pianists today, has spent most of the latter years of his career playing neglected works by composers who worked in France during the 1920s and ‘30s. Tibor Harsányi has been his latest project, and with this Vol. 3 he digs into some of the composer’s meatiest works. It should be noted that everything on this CD except for the short piece from Parc d’Attractions Expo are first recordings.

The program opens with the 1926 piano sonata, clearly one of Harsányi’s meatiest works, and we are immediately plunged into his world of bitonal harmonies. As in much of his music, Harsányi’s top line—though quirkily constructed—is essentially tonal; it is the chord choices and chord positions that constantly move the harmonies around and cause the bitonal clashes. And yet—I hope that Mr. Koukl will forgive me for saying this—there is something lightweight about the work. This is by no means a condemnation of Harsányi’s fine grasp of structure and quite a bit of imagination, but it has the “feel” of a Sonatina, particularly (but not exclusively) in the third movement. Nonetheless, Koukl’s lively reading makes the most of it.

If anything, the 4 Morceaux of 1924 are even more harmonically complex—and, to my ears, more serious—music than the sonata. This is almost Szymanowski-like in its very complex harmonies which in fact drive the piece rhythmically as well from the left hand. Moreover, each of the four pieces have a different “feel” and character, and the music is more serious. These are clearly unjustly-forgotten gems. In the second piece, “Serenade,” Harsányi also uses the pentatonic scale.

The Petite Suite is also a bit lightweight, but with a title like that you expect it to be. When I say “a bit lightweight,” however, one must take into consideration Harsányi’s love of extended chords and pentatonic scales, which gives the music a feeling of consistent restlessness. I found myself mesmerized by the first movement (“Prelude”) with its constantly rising chromatic melody.

Perhaps it is because of the choice of selections on this CD or perhaps due to the way they are programmed, but although there are contrasts in tempo and mood I felt a sense of déjà vu as the music moved from track to track. This is clearly not the fault of Koukl, whose playing at every moment is fully engaged, but the fault of Harsányi. He apparently went through a period where nearly everything had the same kind of harmonic base and same general trajectory despite changing tempi. (Even most of the keys he wrote in are the same.) Or perhaps I’ve been spoiled by listening to so much Sorabji of late. The Farsi-British composer’s imagination was so much richer and far reaching that, by contrast, Harsányi sounds like a dessert rather than a main course.

Nonetheless, these are valuable recordings because they are first issues of most of this music and clearly some of it is quite extraordinary.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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