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Hungarian National Choir

National Choir

The National Choir was founded in 1985 by composer and choral conductor Miklós Pászti. Originally called State Choir, it emerged from the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. At its first important a capella concert the choir performed works by Liszt. The first oratorio it performed was Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, conducted by Antal Doráti. Following the death of the founding conductor in 1989, the choir was heded by Katalin Bodonyi and Gábor Ugrin. Beginning in 1990, the first great era in the National Choir’s history is linked with the name of Mátyás Antal who served as choral conductor until 30 March 2016. In over quarter of a century it became one of Hungary’s leading professional choirs. It boasts a rich repertoire chiefly consisting of orchestra-accompanied and a capella choral music, as well as oratorios, ranging from works by the early-Baroque Schütz to Bach, Viennese Classical, 19th and 20th-century composers, and contemporary music. The National Choir is open to every genre, and has been involved in opera productions and even jazz performances.

On 1 January 2016 Csaba Somos took over at the helm of the National Choir. Mr Somos had been working as a choral conductor with amateur and professional choirs for many decades. In an effort to ensure a seamless transition and an unbroken tradition, the two choral conductors work closely together for three months.

In the past thirty years the National has worked under the baton of eminent conductors including Antal Doráti, Péter Eötvös, Ádám Fischer, Lionel Friend, János Fürst, Lamberto Gardelli, Zsolt Hamar, Domonkos Héja, János Kovács, György Lehel, András Ligeti, Ervin Lukács, Kobayashi Ken-Ichiro, Géza Oberfrank, Tamás Pál, Rico Saccani, Yuri Simonov, Carlo Montanaro, Krzysztof Penderecki, Tamás Vásáry and naturally the chief music director of the National Philharmonic Orchestra, Zoltán Kocsis. The choir performs extensively abroad, and has appeared in Europe – including the Vatican in a concert that was televised by several European broadcasting companies – as well as Israel and Japan. Performed at country cultural centres and school halls around Hungary, its Popular Opera Hits and Top 10 Choral Works programmes (organised by Filharmonia Hungary) have attracted considerable attention. The National Choir regularly appears in Hungarian minority areas across the border, including Arad, Dunajská Streda, Cluj, Carei, Oradea, Subotica, Zalău, and in April 2016 it gave a successful concert in Bartók’s birthplace, Nagyszentmiklós (today Sânnicolau Mare).

While the backbone of the repertoire consists of 19th-century oratorios, the National Choir attaches great importance to performing and popularising contemporary music. It has premièred, among other works, Zoltán Jeney’s oratorio Funeral Rite and György Kurtág’s Songs of Dispair and Sorrow, widely considered to be one of the most difficult works in the choral literature. The repertoire also includes pieces by Zsolt Durkó, Kamilló Lendvay, Emil Petrovics, József Soproni, György Ligeti, György Orbán and Sándor Szokolay. For many decades the choir has given concerts at the contemporary music festival Music of our Age, and has recorded works by contemporary composers (Huszár, Csemiczky, Bozay, Király, Hollós, Sári).

On the twentieth anniversary of its founding, the National Choir performed some ambitious works, including Felix Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang Symphony, Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, Arthur Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, Gioachino Rossini’s Stabat Mater and Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony (No. 3.). Ten years later, the anniversary concert programme featuring a Romantic (Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces), a contemporary (Péter Eötvös’s Prayer) and a work by Béla Bartók (Cantata Profana) can be regarded as the National Choir’s ‘calling card’. Consisting of many soloists, the National Choir is a returning guest at the National Philharmonic Orchestra’s summer Beethoven series in Martonvásár. It regularly appears in the Orchestra’s family matinée concerts, as well as the Bartók New Series, launched in 2006, which will record the complete works of Bartók, respecting and faithfully reflecting the composer’s intentions. The first album of Bartók’s choral works came out 2016, in co-operation with the Slovak Philharmonic Choir. The National Choir and the National Philharmonic Orchestra provide solid support in the effort to present to the audiences many undeservedly forgotten works of the concert repertoire, such as Enescu’s Symphony No. 3, Britten’s War Requiem, Debussy’s cantata The Prodigal Son and mystery The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Ravel’s lyric fantasy The Child and the Spells and Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. The performance of Richard Strauss’s operas, one of the National Philharmonic Orchestra’s pet projects, has involved the National Choir and many of its soloists. These events were received with great critical acclaim. Other important events of recent years include the National Choir’s involvement in Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron, completed and conducted by Zoltán Kocsis. In addition to the traditional oratorio repertoire – that is Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, Dvořák and Mendelssohn – it has performed works such as Mahler’s ambitious choral symphonies, Bruckner’s Te Deum and Liszt’s Christ oratorio. The National Choir is a regular participant of large-scale events at the Palace of Art, such as the Wagner Days.