This disc fills a decided gap, because there appear to be no other currently available recordings of these works. The Viola Concerto is a late work, dating from 1979, and composed for Pinchas Zukerman (not "Zuckerman," as Naxos' annotator repeatedly spells it) at the suggestion of Gregor Piatigorsky. (At any rate, Zukerman never recorded it, although he did give the première performance in 1984) Unusually, it is in four movements. Rózsa did not think highly of it, and it is the least immediately appealing of his concertante works. It is tense and dark, and whatever humor it displays is of the grotesque variety. One also hears hints of the composer's earlier film scores. The first movement, for example, reminds me of the music that Rózsa composed in 1947 for the Edward G. Robinson thriller The Red House. This is a worthwhile score, but one can understand why it hasn't caught on. Violist Gilad Karni makes a good case for it, applying his rich tone liberally, and relishing the score's all-pervasive Magyar colorings.
It is surprising that the more uncomplicated Hungarian Serenade is not better represented on CD, but as with the Viola Concerto, only an out-of-print version on Koch International Classics exists (in theory, anyway: Koch 3-7304-2) as a CD alternative. The Hungarian Serenade is quite an early work, and the year given by Naxos (1945) is misleading, because the composer revised this score several times, including as late as 1952! In fact, an early version of the work was presented in 1932, with no less than an apparently appreciative Richard Strauss in the audience. Originally for strings only, the Serenade eventually was reconfigured for full orchestra, and this is how it is performed here. In keeping with the genre, it opens with a March (but does not close with one), which is followed by a Serenata, a Scherzo, a Notturno, and a Danza. Despite the Italian movement titles, this work is Hungarian through and through – perhaps in the style of Kodály, who knew how to dress Hungarian folk music up without making it relinquish its true character. As Hungarian cooks will tell you, goulash can be ruined if you use a cut of beef that is too expensive.
The orchestra heard here is, believe it or not, the official orchestra of the Hungarian railroad system! It has been in existence since 1945 and plays with know-how and enthusiasm, if not with ideal suaveness. Its contribution is more than satisfactory until something better comes along … if something better comes along! Smolij, who seems to have conducted more orchestras than I have had hot dinners, has built a good rapport with the orchestra, and his reading of these two scores is honest and sympathetic. This, then, is not a thrilling addition to the Rózsa discography, but a satisfying one nevertheless.
Copyright © 2009, Raymond Tuttle