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CD Review

Miklós Rózsa

Koch 3-7304-2H1

Complete Orchestral Music - Volume 2

  • Sinfonia Concertante
  • Concerto for Viola
Igor Gruppman, violin
Richard Boch, cello
Paul Silverthorne, viola
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Sedares
Koch International Classics 3-7304-2H1
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Gorgeous.

The guardians of the Temple of Art have done a fairly good job of keeping Rózsa's music out. He had the misfortune to compose non-serial, non-minimalist film scores, for the most part, and to be a compatriot of Bartók. To those who believe that film music is ipso facto junk and that a Hungarian composer has to create at Bartók's level to merit serious consideration, Rózsa's a non-starter, but both camps make two serious critical errors: first, that a timeless hierarchy of genres determines worth; second, one should listen to only the very best.

The first doesn't survive a moment's thought. There's nothing timeless or indicative of the Eternities of Art in the hierarchy. In the late nineteenth century, for example, opera and the tone poem were accorded a higher place than the "abstract" forms of symphony and sonata. I suspect the reverse holds true today. Even so, a good opera should count for more than a mediocre symphony. We should talk not about the relative worth of genres, but about specific examples: which film score or symphony.

The second is more pernicious because more ingrained, especially in North American culture. It's an offshoot of the desire to hear only certifiable masterpieces as well as a disguised variant of "King of the Mountain." Curiously, it only seems to hold for modern music. Hardly anyone dislikes Schumann because he fails to reach the level of Brahms. People like or dislike Schumann for his own qualities, regardless of Brahms. This makes sense. On the other hand, those supposedly well-read enough to know better continually look for the modern Numero Uno, Big Enchilada, with talk about how Stravinsky fails to match Schoenberg, or Prokofieff Stravinsky, and so on. It's like hearing a bar-room argument over whether Pera's a better shortstop than Ozzie Smith. The question becomes whether Smith turns to garbage because Pera might be better or vice versa. It's not as interesting a question - and takes almost no thought at all to answer, either way - as those which analyze the play of each and build a view of individual styles. Clothing crude arguments in polysyllabic vocabulary doesn't make the ideas less crass. The short answers are that film music isn't necessarily junk and that Rózsa doesn't have to be as good as Bartók. One can enjoy Rózsa on his own. So kudos to the enterprising Koch label for continuing this series.

Of course, like most film composers of his generation, Rózsa wrote more than film music. In fact, he "fell into" film music almost by accident. Living in Paris, he had enjoyed major performances of his early symphonic works and discovered that this wasn't enough to allow him to eat. He asked a friend, the composer Arthur Honegger (and a pioneer of music for movies), how Honegger made ends meet. Honegger took him around to film producers shortly thereafter. Within the year, Rózsa was the house composer to fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda. When Korda moved his operations to Hollywood, he took Rózsa with him. From then on, Rózsa "never went hungry again" and composed concert music mainly in the interstices of his movie career. That he made time for concert music says much for his idealism, if not for his business sense. Rózsa composed very few concert works. His output probably would have remained small even had he not worked for the studios. The music is very highly polished, as well as powerful, dramatic, songful, and moving. He had the painstaking temperament of a jeweler, even in large-scale works. Every note seems to find its most advantageous place in the texture; every phrase sounds beautifully, almost perfectly shaped. The care is evident even in his opus 1, a string trio. I suspect his concert works cost him a good deal of effort.

Rózsa's music mainly broods. Even lively moments come as respites. It's a highly Romantic sensibility using a modern musical vocabulary. The themes resemble Hungarian folk music, but the pieces themselves are more ravishing than Bartók and more sharply focussed than Kodály. Since most know Rózsa's music from either epics like Ben-Hur or fantasies like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, his concert music may come as a bit of a surprise. The language of the film music doesn't differ all that much from the concert music, but the concert music usually lies expressively closer to Rózsa's film noir scores like Brute Force and The Lost Weekend. I suspect that Rózsa enjoyed writing for this film genre the most - fewer compromises of his normal mode of expression and less a matter of "thinking oneself back" or of adhering to someone else's dramatic agenda.

The Sinfonia Concertante in its entirety receives its recording première, I believe. Heifetz and Piatigorsky, for whom Rózsa composed it, recorded on RCA only the second movement, a marvelous "Tema con variazioni," in reduced orchestration. This has appeared on CD, but it only whetted my appetite to hear the whole thing. Rózsa tells the following story:

… I called Piatigorsky and told him the first draft was ready and I though we should all try it through. The first movement began with a long passage for the cello alone before the violin entered. Heifetz pulled a long face. "I can't wait as long as that. Give him about four bars and then I'll take over." The whole of the first movement went on like that, if the one had a long solo, the other insisted on a solo of equal length; if the one had a brilliant passage and the other a lyrical tune there was a squabble again, and so on.

Rózsa laconically summed it up: "I made note of the required changes."

Rózsa consequently gives us a double concerto for two virtuosi. If Brahms' own double concerto became driven by the exigencies of the musical ideas (he originally wanted to write a cello concerto), Rózsa's was driven by the performers. He had to find, from the beginning, the ideas suited to both instruments. Amazingly, the work betrays none of the external pressures. It sounds right, rather than obligatory. The movement is "about" how the two instruments sound together. An attention-grabbing opening leads to a song-like duet, with the soloists imitating each other's material. Technically, the passage shows sophisticated counterpoint but sounds like pure singing. After all, a composer interested in melody might well find fascination with how different melodies go together. The orchestra sounds rich and full and yet one always hears the soloists. To a great extent, this stems from Rózsa's reserving the full orchestra for big climaxes without the soloists and the soloists for essentially lyric work. The most remarkable part of the movement occurs with an extended section for both instruments alone. One could call it a cadenza, but, unlike most cadenzas which act as reflective recitatives, it really advances the musical argument more than any other passage. It does call for virtuosity, however, since Rózsa often calls on the two soloists to sound like a string quartet through ingenious double- and triple-stopping.

The theme-and-variations second movement gives each instrument extended time in the separate spotlight. How he got that past his two primi signori I have no idea. Rózsa divides up the interest of the movement masterfully:

  • Variation 1 - prominence to the cello
  • Variation 2 - prominence to the violin
  • Variation 3 - violin-cello duet in dance
  • Variation 4 - extended opening for orchestra alone leading to violin-cello duet
  • Variation 5 - violin and cello vs. orchestra
  • Variation 6 - violin-cello duet in song
  • Variation 7 - an "invertible variation" of Variation 1, this time with violin prominent

Rózsa casts the last movement as a "Hungarian rondo," of the sort beloved by Kodály and influenced by Hungarian village fiddle music. The most complicated harmonies of the work occur here, and there's a curious tension between the intensity of the harmony and the springiness of the rhythm. Once again, we get a cadenza for the soloists - this time one more conventional in "feel" - although Rózsa again asks for the string-quartet imitation. The composer comes up with a brilliant solution to the "climactic rush to the finish line" by allowing the soloists to inaugurate the excitement and then letting the orchestral mass cap it off.

The Sinfonia Concertante plumbs no psychological depths, but it is ravishingly beautiful and elegantly written. Those who want profundity should listen to Brahms or Mahler. But, to me, pure sensuous beauty comes along so rarely that I can't bring myself to look on it as a "lower" pleasure.

The Viola Concerto was Rózsa's last completed orchestral work. It's also the concert work that took him the longest to write - four years, interrupted by film scores. We can trace the instigation of the work to Piatigorsky, who suggested the composer write a concerto for the cellist. By the time Rózsa took up the pen again, Piatigorsky had died, and the work had become a viola concerto. In 1984, Pinchas Zukerman premièred the work with André Previn and the Pittsburgh. According to Tony Thomas's liner notes, Rózsa regarded this concerto as his favorite of all the ones he wrote (violin, cello, piano, violin and cello; the so-called Spellbound concerto doesn't count). Certainly, the viola concerto speaks the most intimately and, I believe, the most intensely among his concerti, perhaps due to the nature of the instrument, one that Rózsa favored in his orchestral music with prominent sectional solos. Come to think of it, I find his orchestral use of the viola similar to Shostakovich's, although the two composers speak different musical languages. On the other hand, the concerto lives in the same emotional neighborhood as other late Rózsa - the music of someone more disinterested, past the need to impress. The "psychology" of the work is also more complex. In his other concerti, Rózsa creates convincing heroic soloists, I suspect due both to the demands of his soloists and to his own dramatic inclinations at the time. In terms of Menotti's fable of The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore (art of youth, middle-age, and old age), Rózsa's late music moves from middle to old age. Significantly, he also wrote the score to Resnais's Providence during this period. The triumphantly heroic gives way to an awareness of tragic, unavoidable, and not always unforeseen consequences inextricable from whatever victory one might win.

In the depths of its darkness, the first movement surprised even the composer, who then felt the need to push off the traditional slow movement and quick finale by inserting a relatively light second movement and thus turned what began as three movements into four. Despite passages of passionate energy, somewhat at odds with the traditional view of the viola, the first movement ends in resignation. The second-movement scherzo is no joke. Its bounding energy suggests power, rather than light-heartedness, like a horse vaulting a high fence and galloping off. Still the movement retains its textural clarity, despite the big moments, and finally disappears in a wisp. In the third movement "Adagio," the music almost comes to a stop, as if the soloist were lost in thought and regret, but Rózsa has the savvy to know when to move things along. Only a superb rhetorician could bring something like this off. Rózsa has other movements like this one, a kind of Hungarian nocturne, from the same family as Rózsa's orchestral work of that very name - a long, lyrical meditation, more earnest than passionate. The last movement superficially springs from the tradition of "barn-burner" rondo-finales - with lots of notes played very fast and big outbursts - but it's also fairly grim. It doesn't begin to "resolve" or lighten the grief accumulated during the slow movement. Indeed, the song of the adagio invades the contrasting slower passages of the finale, and at times one feels as if such music could take over, although Rózsa always manages to quicken the pace again. Significantly, I think, the ending section strikes one as shortened, or "terse," despite the movement's nearly eight-minute length. Especially if we compare it to Rózsa's other concerti, we could fairly describe the ending as "enigmatic," even, since Rózsa's concerti tend to fulfill (and beautifully) our expectations of how a "proper" concerto should act. Here, he confounds us. I have no idea what to make of such an abrupt ending, but that very question keeps me coming back to the work.

I can't praise the performers or the recording highly enough. After all, neither concerto comes anywhere close to standard repertoire, even in the orphanage of twentieth-century music. James Sedares and the New Zealanders, of course, are experienced hands with unfamiliar neo-Romantic works. They play with commitment. This is more than a read-through or a performance just a few steps away from one. The orchestra plays as if it has assimilated both works. The technicians have provided a full, yet "natural" sound. Violinist Gruppman and cellist Boch make me forget Heifetz and Piatigorsky, or perhaps the music does - I'm not sure which. But both are quite fine. However, Paul Silverthorne, principal violist of the London Symphony and the London Sinfonietta, stands out as one of the best I've ever heard, recalling and even effacing the memory of such greats as Doktor, Benyamini, and Primrose. The tone is rich and the playing supremely dramatic and suggests a great cellist rather than another violist. Most violists simply don't take the spotlight like this. I'm definitely looking for more of his work.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz

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