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Miklós RÓZSA
Concertos for Violin and Cello
Robert McDuffie, violin / Lynn Harrell, cello
Yoel Levi conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
TELARC CD-80518 [71:52]
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Even when he wrote chamber or instrumental music Miklós Rózsa did not write small, and the two concertos and 'theme and variations' on this disc offer big, thoroughly idiomatic, Rózsaian music. Known, if at all, to the general public as the man who wrote the music for Ben-Hur, El Cid, Quo Vadis, unlike many 'film composers' Rózsa never abandoned the concert hall, hence the title of his autobiography, A Double Life. And like the best composers, he wrote appropriately to the medium in his own instantly recognisable style. So, if you love the music of Miklós Rózsa you will be thoroughly at home here. I shall nail my colours to the mast so you may begin taking pot-shots: Rózsa was the finest film composer in history, and his concert works deserve to see him established as one of the major 20th century 'serious' composers. All three works here are marvellous advocates for his acceptance.

The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op 24 dates from 1956. Despite the composer's claim in his autobiography that he always had been concerned to prevent the two parallel lines of his career meeting, elements from the concerto may be familiar from the savaged remains of a possible Billy Wilder film masterpiece, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1969) (the corpse remaining after studio butchery is currently in rotation in it's 'scope ratio on Film Four). We can assume that Rózsa reworked some of this violin music for the great violin-playing detective, not because he held his own work in such low regard that he felt no shame in recycling it into 'mere movie music', but because he took cinema seriously. After all, this is no isolated incidence. Parts of the Viola concerto, Op 37 and the score for Time After Time (1979) are close to identical.

The violin concerto was written for Heifetz, and premiered by him in Dallas on January 15, 1956. It is wonderfully rich and boldly romantic music, clearly influenced by the folksong of Rózsa's native Hungary, and full of vigour and thrillingly explosive writing. Just try the finale to the opening Allegro non troppo ma passionato. Robert McDuffie plays as if his life depended upon it, and the result is exhilarating.

The Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 32 was written 12 years later for János Starker. There is a really ferocious energy to this score, a work full of dynamic fury and impassioned romanticism. Epic in every sense, Rózsa's orchestrations demand riveted attention while the endlessly questing, probing, interrogative solo line refuses to let go. Lynn Harrell offers deeply lyrical, yet where necessarily utterly commanding playing. A hero of legend leading his forces into battle. The closing Allegro vivio is indomitable.

The Theme and Variations for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 29a (1958) unites the soloists in a single movement lasting 12 minutes. Due to complex circumstances, the piece is actually a re-orchestrated version of the central movement from the Sinfonia concertante, Op29. Again, this is folk-like, rapturously melodic music, the variations moving through various moods from the argumentative to sweeping romance to a final calm.

Throughout, the playing and sound are first-rate, both appropriately full of summer fire. If you don't know the music of Miklós Rózsa this album is a great place to start. Imagine a composer comparable to Bax, Bartók, Rachmaninov, and start to explore. If you are familiar with Rózsa you need no recommendation from me. Just enjoy one of the most thrilling releases of the year so far.


Gary S. Dalkin

and Colin Anderson concurs

This is a marvellous CD of gorgeous music, superbly played and recorded. Do I need to write more? Well, just to say that Budapest-born Rozsa was born in 1907, he became an American citizen and died in 1995. He wrote a number of fine film scores for Hollywood productions and his symphonic music is generally imbued with Hungarian folksong, is generously melodic and richly and colourfully scored.

The slow movement of the 1956 Violin Concerto (written for Heifetz whose recording for RCA remains available) has a haunting refrain. The work as a whole is a gift for a virtuoso soloist. McDuffie is one such. He plays with sovereign tone and agility, and clearly loves the music. There's echoes of Bartok (or perhaps it's the softer expression of Kodaly really) and Walton; and inevitably there's the fingerprints of a film composer. But there's nothing wrong with that.

The Cello Concerto (for Janos Starker) is later, 1968, and is of a more austere caste while remaining atmospheric and communicative. The expression is terser than that in the Violin Concerto and is perhaps rather more personal. Harrell certainly plays it brilliantly; he's been absorbed into the recitative-like solos and delivers them with compelling oratory and narrative.

Both soloists (originally Heifetz and Piatigorsky) are heard in Theme and Variations. A Hungarian folksong (or a Rozsa tune intended to resemble one) is passed between the principal string voices and a small orchestra in a series of contrasted commentaries on this main idea. It's an attractive work that doesn't quite attain the distinction of the two concertos.

I must also commend Levi and his orchestra. Normally I find this combination well intentioned but dull. Here they are decidedly more characterful and imaginative than can be the case. Soloists, orchestra and conductor perform this immensely likeable music with relish and have been afforded outstanding sound. Not only is the balance between solo instruments and orchestra finely judged, one can actually hear the orchestra properly - the concomitant parts of tuttis and solo lines. Whether it's a soft bass drum stroke, opulent high strings, a flick of harp or the tinkle of a triangle, the recording faithfully captures all. That's not always the case when a solo instrument (or voice) is involved.

This CD will appeal to anyone who loves tunes, orchestral colour and high emotion. If you've got a meaty hi-fi to show-off, the audiophile aspect of this CD will also delight.


Colin Anderson





Gary S. Dalkin

Colin Anderson

Reviews from previous months

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