Friday, January 24, 2003


Album: Symphony No 1 / Chant of Darkness / Chant of Light
Composer: George Barati
CD: December 2001
Catalogue: Naxos 85559063
No of discs: 1

Several people I have played this to without any information about the identity of the composer immediately declared 'Shostakovich' on first hearing the stabs of brass and brooding contrapuntal strings of the opening maestoso from George Barati's First Symphony, 'The Alpine', composed in 1963. Similarly the meditative quality of the andantino tranquillo is not a hundred miles away from early Bartok.

This is not to suggest that Barati, who died in 1996 aged 83, was a derivative composer. On the contrary, his voice is strong and distinctive. But it is to say that his aural universe is heavily shaped by the Eastern and Central European tradition, including that of his Hungarian forebears. Schoenberg, jazz, Debussy, Stravinsky, the indigenous music of the Pacific region and the great nineteenth century symphonists also exercise influence. A first-rank conductor who drew on performance and his formative compositional studies with Roger Sessions after he arrived in the US in the 1930s, Barati admired the atonalists and borrowed ideas from them. But he continued to work in a more expressive vein.

The First Symphony, here recorded for the first time, gives rein to Barati's complex songfulness, biting rhythmic force and dark, chromatic tendencies. The melodic and developmental material is strong. A good number of thematic ideas are introduced, extended and brought together in just 25 minutes, though the ending seemed a little brusque and formulaic to me.

Contrasting with this work from the period of his flourishing maturity are the two orchestral pieces from 1993 and 1994-5. 'Chant of Darkness' arises from both personal and social tragedy (the death of his daughter, an earthquake). It begins and ends eerily with a detuning orchestra. 'Chant of Light', a deliberate counterpoint, is based on three part (A-B-A) song form. These were the last works Barati produced before his own untimely death at the hands of a street assailant in California. Sadly this came in a period when his own artistic flourishing was undergoing a renaissance.

Barati is not a well-known figure in the modern classical repertoire. Hopefully Naxos (as part of their superb 'American Classics' series) will give his important voice a larger audience. I heartily recommend this disc, with its clear and rounded performances by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra / Lazlo Kovaks and the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra / Vladimir Valek. Also worth looking up is Barati's 'Indiana Tryptych', recorded in 1996.

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