Concertos for Violin and Cello
Robert McDuffie, violin /
Lynn Harrell, cello
Yoel Levi conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
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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)
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.