Mátyás Seiber’s Orchestral Music


SEIBER: Sinfonietta for String Orchestra (arr. Doráti). Besardo-Suite No. 2. Fantasia Concertante for Violin & String Orchestra. Violin Sonata. Concert Piece for Violin & Piano / Nina Karmon, vln; Oliver Triendl, pno; Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn; Levente Török, cond / Hänssler Classic CD HC 21043

Mátyás Seiber (1905-1960), once a name to be reckoned with in the music world, fell into obscurity less than a decade after his tragic death in an auto accident in September 1960. Though Hungarian by birth, he moved to Great Britain at the age of 33 (1935) and spent the rest of his life there.

Technically speaking, three of these works were not written by Seiber for orchestra: the Violin Sonata, Concert Piece for Violin & Piano, and the Sinfonietta, which is an arrangement by his friend Antal Doráti of his String Quartet No. 1. Nonetheless, without prior knowledge of the quartet, the Sinfonietta is a very effective piece. Written in 1923 when the composer was only 18 years old, it shows incredible maturity as well as a good concept of composition; he was evidently a very quick study, clearly under the spell of his teacher, Zoltan Kodály. What impressed me most about this piece was the way Seiber achieved a cohesive musical “flow”; his ideas were good to begin with, but they come across even better because he knew how to “connect the dots” with his phrases. I’ve heard far less imaginative works written by much more mature composers, then and now. The third-movement “Scherzo” uses a bitonal theme which Seiber relaxes in tempo towards the middle, only to gradually return to the almost manic pace of the opening.

The Besardo-Suite No. 2 was written nearly 20 years layer (1942), after Seibere had moved to England, and is based on the music of a 16th-17th century Burgindian composer, Jean-Baptiste Bésard. To my ears, this is an even more successful updating of old music than Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. You can tell that it’s music from the Middle Ages, yet Seiber holds your interest by means of his lively rhythms and ingenious orchestration.

With the Fantasia Concertante from 1944 is a thorny 12-tone work although the 12-tone system is not applied strictly. It was received with a sneer by the British critics when it premiered, yet it is, like Berg’s Violin Concerto, a very moving and highly original work with quite a few lyrical passages for the soloist. The liner notes also indicate that some passages in it resemble the work of the then-unknown György Ligeti, and that is true as well. From a performance standpoint, I must commend our soloist here, Nina Karmon, for giving an absolutely transcendent reading of this difficult score.

The Violin Sonata of 1960 and the Concert Piece of 1954 are also 12-tone works; one would never suspect that the composer of this kind of music would also be capable of collaborating with jazz saxist and bandleader Johnny Dankworth on the classical-jazz hybrid Improvisation for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra, also from 1960, but he was. Seiber simply had “big ears” and a need to push the envelope no matter what he wrote. When he visited his native Hungary for the last time, just before the 1956 revolution, the by-then-rising star Ligeti was very much taken with the Concert Piece and wrote a letter to Seiber expressing his admiration. I can hear why Ligeti would have been impressed; the music is very abstract, almost pointillistic, like an aural representation of a Jackson Pollack painting.

This is quite an excellent CD, presenting a wider range of music by this excellent but often-neglected composer that clearly deserves to be heard and studied.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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