A Guide to Kodály’s Háry János and His Greatest Recordings

Byvu lita

Dec 12, 2023

Who was Háry János?

There is flaky historical evidence that he may actually have existed – an army veteran of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s sequence of (usually losing) Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century. He then evidently became a local hero by regaling listeners with his extremely tall stories of his (always winning) exploits against the enemy, enabling the triumph of his Hungarian homeland and people.

A guide to Kodály’s Háry János orchestral suite

Háry János duly became the subject – a situation of which he would doubtless have approved – of an opera based on his legendary tales. Composed by Zoltán Kodály, it was premiered at Budapest’s Hungarian Opera House in 1926 and quickly became a much-loved cultural icon of the newly independent Hungarian nation. It has remained so ever since.

Kodály prefaced the score with his own take on the would-be national hero he immortalised in his opera, and in the orchestral suite he extracted from the score a year later.

‘He is a peasant, a veteran soldier,’ wrote the composer, ‘who day after day sits in the tavern, spinning yarns about his heroic exploits which are an inextricable mixture of realism and naïveté, of comic humour and pathos. Though superficially he appears to be merely a braggart, essentially he is a national visionary and poet. That his stories are not true is irrelevant, for they are the fruit of a lively imagination seeking to create, for himself and others, a beautiful dream world.’

That world and its subject-matter were very much pitched at a home-grown Hungarian audience. Háry János is the Magyar counterpart of other locally designed stage works – Smetana’s Dalibor and LibušeJanáček’s The Excursions of Mr Brouček, Nielsen’s Maskarade, the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan – whose music is better known beyond their nation’s boundaries through orchestral extracts in the form of concert suites (where those exist) rather than in their original form.

Like Béla Bartók, his compatriot, fellow-composer and friend, Kodály combined a ‘high art’ concert-hall idiom of impressive and gorgeously coloured mastery with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his people’s folk music (which, along with Bartók, he collected and researched extensively), and with a deep commitment to the cultural values behind this. Háry János has all these elements in abundance, plus with a richly humorous streak which, it’s fair to say, was not Bartók’s natural territory.

Both composers, while proud nationalists and patriots, were also naturally ambitious for recognition beyond Hungary. Kodály must surely have had an exportable suite from Háry János in mind from the start, and this was first heard in Barcelona in 1927.

By omitting the opera’s voice parts and spoken dialogue and focusing on the score’s main ideas, the suite’s six-movement design conjures a brilliantly entertaining portrait of Háry and his assorted encounters with the (supposed) world around him. Somehow, however rain-sodden the weather outside and however depressing the morning news bulletins, the music has an irresistible quality that has you repeatedly catching yourself grinning in delight.

Although the suite’s reputation has happily swept the musical world, concert-goers outside Hungary still have surprisingly few opportunities to hear it. The obvious up-front reason is that, besides a standard-sized symphony orchestra, the score has a prominent role for the cimbalom.

This unique east-European instrument consists essentially of a low open-topped box, traditionally slung from the standing player’s neck and hanging at hip level like a tray; in the 1870s a larger, free-standing concert version with a more powerful sound was developed in Hungary, of the kind that Kodály wrote for in Háry János. The strings deployed across the instrument are usually not plucked, but played with a set of hand-held beaters, and are arranged in a complex, non-linear layout of pitches, making mastery of the instrument a specialised skill.

Soloists outside native cimbalom territory can usually be found, sometimes in an orchestra’s percussion section, but the instrument’s relative rarity is still a programming disincentive. Kodály’s deployment of it is nonetheless a masterstroke. In this ‘proper’ orchestral context the cimbalom’s distinctive and entirely different sound, tangy and acrid, has the effect of adding local colour to the music while at the same time roguishly sending it up – as, no doubt, the oh-so-redoubtable Háry János himself enjoyed doing to his surrounding listeners.

The best recordings of Háry János

Lawrence Foster (conductor)

Gulbenkian Orchestra

Pentatone PTC 518 6360

The music of Háry János is written with such sureness and panache that it is more or less impossible to perform it really badly. Recording choices therefore come down to issues of style and flair, and with that in mind, Hungarian musicians would seem to be in pole position. So it has been intriguing to find that the top choice that swims to the surface is performed by a Portuguese orchestra and an American conductor. It’s a situation spotlighting how, besides being a Hungarian national masterpiece, Háry János has also become a work that belongs to the world – and how that world, in turn, can open up fresh and appealing perspectives on the music.

Lawrence Foster and the Gulbenkian Orchestra lay down a marker in the opening movement, ‘Prelude: The Fairy-Tale Begins’, setting the scene in a way that’s both colourful and unpretentious. Then comes ‘The Viennese Musical Clock’ with its mechanical figures, gazed at in wonderment by Háry in the Austro-Hungarian Emperor’s palace, to which our conquering hero has been summoned (so he says); the tone of the movement’s toy-soldier march is winsomely captured by the upper woodwind.

The cimbalom first appears in ‘Song’, where Háry and his girlfriend are dreaming of returning to their native village. A long-breathed clarinet solo (something of a Kodály trademark), followed by another one for solo oboe, set up an episode of musing lyricism, played here in a way that conveys both the music’s charm and its underlying melancholy.

In ‘The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon’, Háry then confronts the French army, which (so he says) topples over like tin soldiers, so that Napoleon has to kneel down and plead for mercy. The orchestra’s playing here depicts all this with wry lightness of touch: the music seems to be alluding to another masterclass in ironic story-telling, Russian composer Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet Petrushka.

‘Intermezzo’, the suite’s signature movement, features much interplay, cannily balanced here between the not-too-large orchestra and the solo cimbalom: if you want to savour what this instrument gets up to, this is the go-to recording. Finally comes ‘The Entrance of the Emperor and his Court’, again set in Vienna – another send-up march, delivered here in true making-you-grin style. Played at its best, Háry János has you feeling that it’s good to be alive. Recorded in 2011, this performance has that quality.

Iván Fischer (conductor)

Philips 462 8242

Fischer’s Háry János with the Budapest Festival Orchestra is deft and enjoyable, with soulful depth in the ‘Song’ third movement and coruscating virtuoso detail in the ‘Emperor’s Court’ finale. There’s also an imaginative choice of additional material, all sparklingly performed – the orchestral Dances of Marosszék and Dances of Galánta, some superbly sung children’s choruses (a legacy of the composer’s lifetime of teaching activity), plus excerpts from the original Háry János opera score.

Ádám Fischer (conductor)

Nimbus NI 7081

Recorded in 2007, Ádám Fischer’s interpretation is entirely different from his brother Iván’s – broader and more probing, with spacious recorded sound to match and handsome, grand-manner playing by the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra. The ‘Song’ third movement’s lyrical sadness is wonderfully conveyed, with magnificent clarinet and oboe solos recalling the story-telling manner of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. And the fourth movement’s ‘Battle and Defeat of Napoleon’, with snarling trombone glissando slides, strikingly suggests that this may not be such fun after all and that Háry’s delusional antics might have a dark side too.

István Kertész (conductor)

ELQ 480 4873

István Kertész’s premature death in 1973 was one of post-war music’s tragedies. Fortunately he left a large recorded legacy, including this Háry János, whose vintage 1964 recorded sound still sounds fantastic. There’s no shortage of the LSO’s aren’t-we-wonderful style of the period, but then again, they were (if rather over-loud): there’s searching beauty in the Prelude and the ‘Song’, and outrageous virtuosity from the brass in the ‘Battle with Napoleon’ and ‘Emperor’s Court’ movements. This is Háry János as a high-class musical riot.

And one to avoid…

On the one hand, Antal Doráti’s incisive conducting and the verve of the Minneapolis SO give much pleasure on this 1959 recording. On the other, the recorded sound may mean you want to approach it with caution. Mercury’s ‘Living Presence’ process was clear and vivid for its time, but while the range of detail still impresses, the overall perspective has a clinical, bass-light quality that calls for adjustment.

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