A tribute to the late Laszlo Heltay by Roger Walkinton, one of his devoted singers:
It would be difficult to over-estimate the influence of Laszlo Heltay, who has died in Budapest three weeks short of his 90th birthday, upon the performance of choral music all over the world. The clarity and agility which he demanded from his choirs perhaps reached its apogée with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chorus which he founded in 1975 when Sir Neville Marriner sought a group whose singing style would match to perfection the style of his already well-established orchestra.
The solid purity of style was only then beginning in the choral world with the likes of the Monteverdi Choir, and marked a new sound far removed from the clipped Anglican cathedral and voluminous Choral Society traditions. Laszlo was the pathfinder of this movement, setting the new musical standard from the start with Collegium Musicum Oxoniense which he founded in 1960 and inspiring generations of conductors, choral leaders and singers who revered him for his musicianship, charisma and relentless perfectionism.
Generations of Sussex music students and music lovers were lucky that from 1968 until the mid 1980s he was Director of Music at the Gardner Arts Centre (now the Attenborough Centre), where he conducted the first ever concert at the GAC in December 1969 and trained the University Choir and Orchestra. In 1967 he created Brighton Festival Chorus which, then as now, rehearsed on campus and in 1995 the University conferred on him an Hon DMus. A pupil of Kodaly at the Franz Liszt Academy, he supported the anti-Communist uprising in 1956 while a producer at the Hungarian Radio from where he fled to England. A place was found for him to pursue his musical talents at
Merton College, Oxford where he remained as Director of Music establishing the CMO (later re-named Schola Cantorum of Oxford) and the Kodaly Choir. In l964 he went to New Zealand for three years to conduct the NZBC orchestra and NZ opera company. At Sussex University he collaborated often with John Birch the University Organist, which led to a professional lifetime of working together with the RPO, the ASMF and later the Royal Choral Society. He held prestigious positions with the Hamburg & Stuttgart Radio Choirs and from 1997 the Spanish TV and Radio Choir in Madrid.
His recordings with all these groups are legion.
Always keen to encourage young musicians, especially conductors and choral singers, Laszlo was heavily involved with the Europa Cantat movement and he regularly toured European countries and further afield as Chorus Master, Guest Conductor, Masterclass leader or Jury member. His final visit to Brighton was in 2006 to conduct BFC in the 40 th Brighton Festival in the Dome but alas he slipped awkwardly on the stage during the dress rehearsal and broke his hip. Outside music, his chief passions were books and languages, football and tennis, chess and dogs, and in both Spain (living for many years near Barcelona) and Hungary he worked hard to set up dog rescue centres. His
autobiography was published in Hungary in 2018, mostly the result of discussions held with the eminent Hungarian author Istvan Elmer, with a title reflecting his combined canine and choral interests – sadly the idea of calling it “From Bach to Bark” did not translate well into Hungarian.
Although he knew precisely how to extract the most spiritual depth from the sacred music he prepared with many choirs, he was profoundly non-religious and was a great disciple of the works of Richard Dawkins. He long ago acquired British citizenship and lived in Hampstead, but moved in the 1990s first to Barcelona and then back to Budapest, living in Pest with his beloved dog Charley.