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CD Review

László Lajtha

Orchestral Works, Volume 5

  • Symphony #4 "Spring", Op. 52
  • Suite #2, Op. 38
  • Symphony #3, Op. 45
Pécs Symphony Orchestra/Nicolás Pasquet
Marco Polo 8.22367 74:15
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Impressive.

Just when you think you've got the all the necessary statues set in the Pantheon, something tells you that you may need to add a wing. Liszt, Bartók, and Kodály already stand in the Hungarian room, with Dohnányi and Rósza (if I had a vote) waiting in the wings. Roughly ten years younger than either Bartók or Kodály, László Lajtha studied composition in Budapest and got swept up in the folk-music collection movement. His music strikes me as a combination of both the older men, but it has less of an air of experimentation. The battle for intellectual acceptance of Modernism seems over. Apparently, the age gap made a difference, as it did for Miklós Rózsa, born fifteen years after Lajtha. Lajtha uses the shapes of Hungarian folk music, not for nationalist reasons, but because he seems to like them. His music has as much affinity with composers in Paris as in Hungary. Like Bartók, his music is primarily contrapuntal. Unlike Bartók, classical forms attract him. He wrote, for example, nine symphonies to Bartók's none. The symphonies occupy a central place in his catalogue, although he also turned out ballet scores and a ton of chamber music, including ten string quartets.

Bad breaks plagued Lajtha's career. Scores have been lost. Major works remain unperformed, even in Hungary, initially due to the conservatism of Hungarian musical circles between the wars. World War II interrupted it, and the post-war Communist government made trouble for him, usually in the name of Socialist Realism. Like Shostakovich in the Soviet Union, the government cast Lajtha in the antipodal roles of honored artist-hero and bourgeois apostate. They gave him medals and took away and restored teaching positions at their whim. When his music did make it to the West, it was usually well received (his Third Quartet won a Coolidge Prize), but it never got enough of a grip. Within Hungary, his pupil, conductor János Ferencsik, championed his work.

The Suite #2 comes from a ballet, Le bosquet des quatre dieux (1943), never performed as a whole. Listening to the Suite, I wonder what in heaven's name the impresarios heard. Joyful and light, somewhat in the vein of Bartók's Rumanian Dances or Kodály's Háry János Suite. The plot really doesn't matter, although the liner notes go into it in some detail. The music works all on its own, without literary or visual aids. The first movement is full of fanfares, with a restless movement that puts one in mind of Martinů. The second movement, a vivacious perpetuum mobile that occasionally stops for breath, sparkles in mostly delicate orchestration, with the occasional muscle of brass. A heartfelt serenade in the manner of Kodály conjures up the lonely, wind-swept Hungarian plains. The finale switches among march, jig, and foxtrot, with an orchestration that emphasizes rapid color changes. Although designated a suite, it runs miles beyond most others. Lajtha could just as easily have called it a symphony, but for a tender artistic conscience. At one point, a startling foreshadowing of Bartók's "Game of Couples" from the Concerto for Orchestra peeks out.

In the late Forties, before the Communist takeover, Lajtha found himself in London with a commission to write a score for a filmed version of T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. I have never seen this film. I tried looking it up for a rental but struck out. According to the Internet, the British National Film Library has one copy. Talk about a cult classic. At any rate, Lajtha recycled some of the score into his Third Symphony (1947). The dread of the play carries over into the symphony, which consists of two longish movements – the first slow, the second fast. The first movement begins with a clarinet alone for about a minute-and-a-half. Strings enter unison. Much of the movement proceeds in two parts, with two extended lines spinning against each other. I picked out five distinct ideas, but I'm willing to bet that some are related. Lajtha concentrates on two: the opening clarinet solo, beginning with a rising semitone and an upward leap of a third, and the string idea, beginning with an upward leap of a sixth. The former uses a "fadeaway" gesture, reminiscent of the sagging flutes at the beginning of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra. The latter gets singled out for extensive imitative, contrapuntal treatment. Along the way, you also get lines evocative of plainchant. The movement is mainly quiet, never rising above a mezzo forte, and it ends quietly, with violin and flute solos.

The finale begins with a call to arms. Oddly, in its restless undercurrent, it sounds like an update of Bruckner. Most of the themes vary ideas in the first movement, including the two main ones. A memorable gesture occurs with heavy staccato brass chords, off the beat, throughout, as well as at the close. In terms of movies, it's the sort of music that ratchets up tension during pursuit. Throughout the symphony, however, Lajtha builds a tight, truly symphonic argument, rather than merely strings cues together. In its balance of architecture and emotion, it makes a great impression.

The Fourth Symphony comes from the early Fifties, when Lajtha found himself under an official cloud. Critics attacked him with the usual Socialist Realism nonsense (or its Hungarian equivalent), both laughable and aggravating to read today. Socialist Realism has nothing to do with aesthetics, although its practitioners direct it at works of art. It completely concerns political control and bolsters the massive, arbitrary power of the state. That such a joyful, clear-cut work (it lives up to its subtitle "Spring") could attract such brickbats shows the aesthetic emptiness and political prostitution of many Eastern European intellectuals – and not a few Western ones as well.

The work has three fast or moderately fast movements: "Allegro molto," "Allegretto," "Vivace." The first movement begins as a perpetuum mobile, with a constant substrata of quick notes. It displays an unusual shape, having nothing to do with classical forms. The first part of the movement plays with four musical cells, avoiding sonata in favor of a mosaic. These cells often act like thematic mottos – from their heads spring new tails. About halfway through, the quick notes fade out in favor of a lyrical, yearning idea, which takes us pretty much to the end, marked by quiet and a gorgeous violin solo. The "Allegretto" is a melancholy minuet, sounding initially like the "Callot" movement in Mahler's First, just to give you some idea of the emotional neighborhood. Bartók references float through – the Concerto for Orchestra's "Interrupted Serenade" and the First Portrait among them. The finale, which begins as a vivid gigue, gets the body moving. It proceeds mainly by the uncoiling of a contrapuntal spring. The orchestration is mostly spare and serves color changes rather than mass, although Lajtha does drop the hammer at climactic points. Occasionally, popular themes, possibly French, bubble to the surface. Other rhythms, including a Hungarian rondo, knock out the gigue as the movement goes along, and finally we wind up with the opening theme of the entire symphony. The end is a joke I won't spoil.

Pasquet and the Pécs make a strong case for Lajtha, despite occasional raggedness. I noticed it only because Lajtha is so contrapuntally precise. How an orchestra like the Berlin would do with sufficient commitment, I can't imagine. Even so, Pasquet and his players have committed. They give you understanding, animated readings of a composer without a deep performing tradition.

Keep in mind that I have no idea what makes a piece of music great. Indeed, I tend to use "great" synonymously with "I like it more than most others." I can't predict the future – who will last and who won't. However, Lajtha moves me. His music ranges widely, from divertissements to epic. His humor strikes me as both genuine and sane, if you can say that about music at all. I've begun to think of him as a cross between Bartók and Martinů. If you like those two, try Lajtha.

Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz.