This is a lot of Kodály: 87 folk song settings for voice and piano, sung by nine singers with accompaniment provided by two pianists, Tamás Vásáry and Emese Virág. Hungaraton's Kodály: Folksongs (Complete) covers every art song-styled folk song arrangement made by Kodály in works ranging from 1906 to 1964; unfortunately we are not told in the notes which collections belong to what years except in a highly condensed fashion. Some of these editions were collaborative efforts between Kodály and Bela Bartók; naturally, Bartók's settings are not included and probably have been collected on disc within Bartók's own context numerous times. However, there is an argument to be made for maintaining the integrity of the original, collaborative sets; when Bartók and Kodály first recorded selections from this material for HMV in 1929 they mixed up the pieces with only a minimal concern for relative turf. Given the vast amount of songs in this set, focusing on Kodály only is understandable.
In 1925, Kodály stated, "Rural Hungary has preserved the continuity of traditions. It is our job to take over from it and cultivate it further." In terms of cultivation, earlier settings tend to be more interventionist than later ones, where the accompaniment can often consist of no more than a series of rolled chords or a stepping rhythm. Admittedly, the earlier settings -- with their daring modernist gestures cohabitating within a spare framework derived from post-romantic practices -- are on the whole a little more musically compelling than the very late efforts. As it usually goes with multiple-vocalist collections such as these, the singers are of a mixed bag; especially good are mezzos Judit Németh and Bernadett Wiedemann, soprano Júlia Hajnóczy, and baritone Gyula Orendt. Not so awesome is the bass-baritone -- more of a baritone-almost-tenor really; certainly in possession of a higher range than Orendt, Gábor Bretz, who is also present on more tracks than any other singer. Nevertheless, no one gets heard for too long; only 10 of these 87 compositions crack the four-minute mark. The piano accompaniments are fine throughout, though seemingly as a rule Kodály never makes these terribly difficult; the same can be said for Bartók's efforts in the same vein.
All of texts are included in Hungarian and English, which is one reason the explanatory background notes need to be short; however, the inclusion of the texts is a major plus. Overall, the singing is generally adequate, too, though of the nine only Júlia Hajnóczy brings something to the table that's reasonably close to the delicious singers Bartók and Kodály themselves used in the 1920s such as Maria Basilides or Vilma Medgyaszay, who, in the latter case, was a diseuse with no formal training. Nevertheless, "complete" is complete; the music's all here and that counts for something significant; the sheer comprehension and scope of this project is, in itself, impressive. Those not deeply involved in either Bartók, Kodály, or Hungarian folk song might take to Kodály's choral music more readily; it travels a bit better and has additional attractive properties of transparency, luminosity, and an "old-world" feel. Nevertheless, the availability of these neglected folk song settings shed a good deal of light on what both Bartók and Kodály achieved in the field of folk song and should be of interest to anyone whose interest in the early Hungarian moderns runs to some measure of depth or even to others with a more general concentration in Eastern European folk music.