From Bakelite To Spotify
Thinking about the number of recordings and the venues used for these during the 45 years of Cantemus is like opening the lid of an old treasure chest. Even those who have had an active relationship with the choirs of this family for decades may sometimes discover something unexpected or forgotten with interesting stories to tell. We have released 30 recordings ourselves. If we add all the recordings released by other companies and also count the ones we participated in with other performers we could say that to date on average every year of our last 45 has produced one recording.
At the beginnings
The story of the recordings began in 1975. The „Singing Youth” movement was at its peak in those days and Hungarian Radio and the Hungaroton record label recorded a lot of performances by the best choirs in the country. The Cantemus Children’s Choir joined the movement and later on – one after the other – so did our other choirs. The recordings took place in the foyer of of one of the high schools in Nyíregyháza – the music specialist high school – because in those days Nyíregyháza didn’t have a suitable concert hall with all the facilities for making quality recordings.
The first live radio recording of the Cantemus Children’s Choir also dates back to that time. The radio crew set up in the Torockó Square church in Budapest and in accordance with the sound engineering practices of that time the sonorous sound of the church acoustics was muffled – which resulted in a not too enjoyable recording! In Dénes Szabó’s words: ’those recordings are very unpleasant – seriously! ’
Working with stars
Working with stars
Since the 1980s we have continually received commissions to participate in national and international productions. Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (’Thousands’) was published by Hungaroton in 1983. It was conducted by Árpád Joó and performed by soloists Júlia Hamar, Klára Takács, Sándor Sólyom Nagy and József Gregor, the Budapest Choir, the Hungarian Radio and TV Choir and the then ’no name’ children’s choir of the Number 4 Nyíregyháza Primary School. The years 1984 and 1985 brought the honour of being chosen to perform in the CD and DVD recordings of the Saint Elizabeth Legend by Franz Liszt – also conducted by Árpád Joó. The children had the chance to share in the recording with Éva Marton in the leading role – a singer who had already been celebrated as one of the stars of the New York Metropolitan Opera at that time. Following that the children’s choir also took part in the televised recording of Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus conducted by András Kóródi and they then had the chance to work with the legendary Leonard Berstein in Budapest and Vienna in the TV recordings of his Kaddish Symphony conducted by the composer himself. The Cantemus Boy’s Choir was equally honoured to have been commissioned to perform the choral parts in the CD recording of Mephistofele by Boito conducted by Giuseppe Patané in 1988. The list has grown ever longer since as our choirs have worked on recordings with some of the most outstanding conductors and orchestras in the world including Seiji Ozawa and Iván Fischer. As a high quality oddity the Benkó Dixieland Band’s Christmas Mass should also be mentioned. This was released in 1991 and subsequently published in LP, DVD and DVD formats. This unique piece of its kind was premiered and later recorded in the Nyíregyháza Lutheran Church.
In a role we were made for
In a role we were made for
The year 1989 established an important milestone in the history of the Cantemus recordings. As Dénes Szabó recalls – ’Commissioned by Hungaroton we had to make recordings with the children’s choir of Kodály’s choral works to make the seventh of a set of CDs. Having assessed several venues the musical director and sound engineer János Mátyás chose the foyer of the Nyíregyháza College of Medicine. The recordings took five days which was a great challenge and effort for the children’s choir. It took at least two days just to find their feet there. The choir podium was brought from Budapest, it was set up, the choir was asked to take its place on it, the recording staff were ready in their mobile studio outside with all the volume and timbre controls positioned for a perfect recording and off we went to start the recording. As the recording crew was outside they luckily couldn’t see what I noticed facing my choir. Some self assured girls – led on by some of their braver peers – took their own initiative and started ’trickling down’ from the podium. They had the confidence to take responsibility for not wanting to stand like tinned sardines and the choir started to open up.To learn how to use this technique was a lesson but by the time we performed the Angels and Shepherds – which became one of the iconic pieces of this recording – we mastered it and could produce the sound in it’s full grandeur. There are three levels in the foyer of the College of Medicine in Nyíregyháza and the idea was for the angels to sing from on high – which the sound engineer liked very much – and the shepherds from down on earth from whence they could gradually ascend towards the angels. This was what I pictured in my head. Tthe sound engineer however had the reverse of this picture in his head with the angels descending towards the shepherds and he kept adjusting his controls until his idea materialised in the recording which – despite being the opposite of my original idea – came out as a success.
Christmas concerts have always been a special feature all through the Cantemus choirs’ performing life. There is an irresistable presence in the minds of the audience. Christmas and the birth of Jesus are associated with choral music and the magic of the purity of angelic voices. If there is a description which has inseparably become synonymous with the singers of Cantemus it is definitely those two words. Even the appearance of the choir conjures up the feeling of light. As the music teacher Klára Kokas once said: ’ the voices of the young girls of Nyíregyháza carry a different kind of splendour – some primeval force and courage, some unbroken and unbreakable courage overcoming everything but in which there’s no strife and no ill will towards anyone or anything. There is the promise in the voices of the angels and the pleasure of the contented acceptance of life on earth as it is.’ The Roman Catholic church in Vállaj is one of the most memorable recording venues primarily because it carries such strong associations with Christmas. In 1989 the precious ’Christmas Music’ album was recorded there and was subsequently released with its iconic green and gold cover – first as a bakelite record and later as a CD. It was a special recording for several reasons one of which was the closing piece – a brave choice at the time – the powerful ’Our Blessed Mother Mary’ canon by Lajos Bárdos which hadn’t been a piece welcomed in a public performance for a long time. The fact that it was jointly performed with the male voice choir of the Greek Catholic Seminary also added to the uniqueness of this CD . The Vállaj church also provided the venue for the recording of the album of ’Masses’and the Vespers by Sergei Rachmaninov and the pictures for the ’O Beautiful, Mysterious Night’ DVD recording were also taken there.
From the danger of hypothermia to ’the great sparrow massacre’
CD recording can be a ’hazardous’ activity. One has a feeling of working for eternity and a yearning to produce the most perfect performances possible. However a great number of unexpected occurences may interfere … ’Take one’ says the sound engineer, the red light goes on, the music takes off with the singers feeling that we are making it all happen – then in a cathartic moment the door opens and a flat cap man peeps through it announcing : ’Post’. Recording stops and the reactions of different dispositions reflect on the incident – none of which are in favour of the postman!
Sometimes it’s the conductor who gets the planning wrong. After returning from the concert tour in Venezuela (January 1983) the choir arrives at the church clad in lightweight and airy concert dress. We realise that the temperature in the church is minus three degrees. Never mind, let’s do a quick sound check! After barely 15 minutes Dénes Szabó orders the girls back into the heated bus, but one girl doesn’t move. She stands on the podium – frozen – and with bluish lips mutters that she can’t step off the stand because her muscles are too stiff. Two helpers walk her back to the bus and lo and behold no one falls ill.
Recordings were often planned to begin in the afternoon – thinking that the village noises would die down by then. But that plan could also be upset. Just when you thought everything was all right the sound engineer heard some buzzing – and we soon spotted a regiment of flies happily sunbathing and partying on the nice warm church windows. After the sun went down they went quiet and we could start working. The most unexpected trills of songbirds can also give technicians a lot of headaches. After a while the problem seemed insoluble so we gave up and left some birdsong in the recordings. Inspired by this we went further and recorded an album entitled ’The sound of nature’ in which birdsong was deliberately made a part of the recording. Sparrows were however a bit of a tougher nut to crack. Once they set up camp in the Vállaj church. They were not particularly annoying because most of the time they were just sitting quietly but as soon as the choir started to sing one of them would begin to chirp. Could it have wanted to join in?! In these situations a church caretaker with the ability to realise the serioussness of the matter can come in handy. He came, ordered the choir to leave the premises and marched off – to return with a gun. In half an hour he announced that he’d found four sparrows but they would chirp no more… So eventually – with some bloodshed and sacrifice – another memorable recording was made.
We have no choice but to adapt to the continual changes in our environment. No doubt the main strength of Cantemus has always been the magic of live performance but reluctantly we have also had to learn to produce quality in the digital world. In the same way that we managed to conquer the acoustics of different spaces and produce quality sound and appearance during the past decades we need to start exploring new paths. We endeavour to compensate our audience for the painful lack of live concerts by putting recordings on our Youtube channel which are aimed at giving them an insight into what we are doing now and to also help to keep in touch with a view to a better future. Although CDs are beginning to become a thing of the past a lot of our recordings are now available to download from dalok.hu, Spotify or Apple Music. We also have a surprise in the making – we would like to give you an online gift concert on our Youtube channel at 17:00 on the 20th of December and we’ll also release a new Christmas album with a selection of our best recordings in the honour of the 45th anniversary. It will also contain some pieces we have never recorded before. The new album will soon be available on dalok. hu and also as a limited edition CD recording. Enjoy the music of our choirs online, too.