Some years ago, unable to sleep in the early hours of the morning, I switched on BBC Radio 3 in the hope of finding something soothing and soporific. The music on offer that night, was neither. It was, however, revelatory. Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra was followed by his Symphony in C. Becoming acquainted with music of such quality was more than consolation for my sleeplessness. Indeed, if I could be sure that such nocturnal gems were regularly on offer, periods of insomnia might almost be welcomed.
I’ve got to know both pieces over the years, thanks to a two-cd set of Kodály’s orchestral music put out by Antal Doráti and the Philharmonia Hungarica. The Symphony in C is a fine, distinctive work that deserves to be better known and more often performed, but repeated hearings have not quite borne out – for me – the promise I thought I detected on my first hearing. The Concerto for Orchestra, however, is a marvel. It is understandable that the piece of the same title by Kodály’s friend and countryman, Béla Bartók should overshadow Kodály’s Concerto, but it is unfair that it should have placed it so much in the shade (something that I’m sure Bartók himself would have regretted). And to this writer at least, the Kodály piece is the finer of the two Hungarian Concertos.
The Concerto for Orchestra was premièred in 1941 (two years before the appearance of Bartók’s work). It is a single movement work lasting around 20 minutes. Conceived as a 20th Century adaptation of the baroque concerto grosso, it alternates passages for solo instruments, or small groups of instruments, with full orchestral sections. This approach is most telling in the central section – an extended largo that follows the brisk, folksy opening section. This lovely slow section opens with a consort of soloists weaving sweet melodies. Gradually this pastoral chamber music swells to full orchestral panoply, and the effect is heartrending. This is music of high seriousness and emotional complexity. The vigorous music of the opening section returns and is developed with great invention, but there is still time for a return to the lyrical, slow music before a hurried coda recalls the opening.
The deftness with which Kodály handles his material is remarkable. The Concerto is boisterous and tender, it hints at tragedy and thrills with moments of beauty, such as at the Bachian climax of the slow section. There is a version to be heard on youtube, though the performers are unidentified (this is not the Doráti version mentioned above). It’s in two clips – the first section, and most of the slow section (including that lovely Bachian moment at 6.35) here:
With the conclusion here: