Miklós RÓZSA (1907-1995)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 24 (1953) [31:22]
Concerto for String Orchestra, Op. 17 (1943) [23:55]
Theme, Variations and Finale, Op. 13 (1933) [19:27]
Jennifer Pike (violin)
BBC Philharmonic/Rumon Gamba
rec. MediaCity UK, Salford, 12, 14 December 2011; 7 January 2012 (Violin Concerto) and 12 June 2012 (Concerto for Orchestra, Finale only)
CHANDOS CHAN10738 [75:08]
I have to admit that I have not consciously heard any music by Miklós Rózsa before reviewing this disc - with one exception. I imagine that I am not the only person to have known the romantic film score to Spellbound without really understanding anything about the composer. This present disc is ‘Volume 3’ of a Chandos retrospective of Rózsa's concert music, so I have missed a fair chunk of his compositions - including a tantalising-sounding Overture to a Symphony Concert (vol. 1) and an apparently aggressive Cello Concerto (vol. 2). However the present disc would seem to be an excellent place to begin my explorations: it is always possible to back-track later.
Rumon Gamba has described the background to this cycle of recordings: - ‘Having made many discs of the film music by composers whose concert work is well known, for example, Arnold and Vaughan Williams, I thought it would be interesting to look at a very well-known film composer and profile his concert works, which have been overshadowed by his big-screen successes. The orchestral music of Miklós Rózsa is extremely exciting, passionate and intoxicating, and deserves to be better known.’ [Presto Classical Review: accessed 02/11/12]
A few words about the composer may be of interest. He was born in Budapest and after study at Leipzig University and Conservatory moved to Paris in 1932. His first two published works were a String Trio and a Piano Quintet. At the advice of Arthur Honegger, Rózsa began to explore the possibility of writing film music. He went to London and worked at fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda’s London Film studios. In 1939 he went with Korda to Hollywood to compose the music for The Thief of Baghdad. Although this film starring Conrad Veidt and John Justin was a British production, the wartime situation necessitated its completion in California. He settled in Hollywood and subsequently wrote the music for dozens of films including Ben Hur, Quo Vadis and El Cid.
His final motion picture, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid was released in 1982. Miklós Rózsa suffered a stroke the following year and subsequently confined his activities to concert music. However unlike film-music composers such as John Barry, Rózsa always managed to balance the ‘day job’ with his keen interest in writing music for the concert-hall. He achieved this by having a contract that allowed him time to write his ‘art’ music during the summer months at his Italian retreat.
The Violin Concerto is fantastic. The work was completed at the composer’s Italian hideaway at Rapallo in 1953. It was subsequently revised in Hollywood the following year. The Concerto was dedicated to Jascha Heifetz who assisted the composer in a number of technical details. It was duly premiered to huge critical acclaim in 1956 by Heifetz and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Hendl. It was recorded shortly afterwards.
I am reminded of Walton’s great Violin Concerto in much of this music. I guess that it is the balance between the lyricism and the ‘bustling energy’ which characterises both works. There is certainly nothing of the film-score in these pages. One or two reviewers of previous recordings of this work have been less than generous in their assessment of this work - E.G. in The Gramophone April 1989 suggests that it is not ‘great music’ and T.H. in the same publication states that [the work] ‘is without any striking ideas’. He suggests that it cannot be considered alongside the concertos of Prokofiev, Sibelius and Bartók. I beg to differ. I find the work, dynamic, haunting and often quite beautiful. It is easy to advance musical allusions in this score to Kodály, Bartók and Walton - however, this is a personal, challenging and technically difficult work that demands to be in the repertoire on its own account. I cannot compare Jennifer Pike’s playing to that of Heifetz’s 1957 recording - although it is available on CD. However, I found her playing impressive and expressive. It appears to me to be an excellent account of this great work.
The Concerto for String Orchestra, Op.17 is an important work by any standards. It was composed in New York in 1943 and reflects the composer’s anxiety over the war-time situation in his native Hungary. The liner-notes point out that Rózsa had just completed the film score for Korda’s classic film based on Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. He felt that he needed to write something ‘non-cinematic’. This present work is a million miles away from the soundscape of Hollywood. It is brutal, bleak and dramatic and explores a wide range of emotion across its three well-balanced movements. The heart of the Concerto is the intense, elegiac slow movement. It is here, more than in any other part of the work that Rózsa’s love and concern for Hungary makes itself felt. The work was dedicated to the composer’s wife, whom he had recently married.
The earliest of the works presented on this disc dates from before the start of Rózsa’s film music career. The Theme, Variations and Finale was completed in Paris during 1933. The liner-notes outline the background. Apparently the opening theme was devised as the composer was leaving Budapest to travel to Paris. He has said his farewells to the family and was no doubt feeling a little melancholy; this is reflected in the opening oboe theme. This is followed by eight variations. I was particularly impressed with the ‘mercurial’ second ‘scherzando’ variation and the heart-breaking fourth, ‘Moderato con gran espressione’. It is here that we see film music potential at its clearest. The finale is deceptive: it begins in a whimsical folksy mood, only to be ousted by a massive outburst from the orchestra which brings this important work to a dramatic conclusion. The music was to give Rózsa an international reputation. It was duly taken up by Bruno Walter, Eugene Ormandy and Leonard Bernstein.
I was impressed by every aspect of this CD. The music was to a large extent revelatory. These are works that have a life of their own - they owe little to the ‘Hollywood style’ that was required of the composer in his main job. This music is interesting and demanding of the listener but never off-putting. The playing requires and here receives virtuosity and a dazzling display of instrumental colouring. The soloist, Jennifer Pike - who is an exclusive artist to Chandos - plays a stunning concerto. We will surely hear much more from her. The sound quality of the recording is superb and reveals all the colour and dynamics of these complex scores.
The liner-notes by Andrew Knowles are extensive: a model of their kind. There is so much important information here about the composer and the music. It has been difficult to synthesise it all for this review.
The most exciting thing of all is that there is a considerable catalogue of orchestral and concerted music yet to be explored in this series. Let us hope that this is not the last volume in this ‘retrospective’. I would love to hear the Symphony in 3 Movements, Op. 6, the Piano Concerto, Op. 31 (1967) (review) and Kaleidoscope, six short pieces for small Orchestra, Op. 19a (1946).
Miklós Rózsa’s music could be characterised as being the fire and passion of Hungarian folk music showcased in the romantic extravagant style of Hollywood but always reflecting the subtlety of between-the-wars Paris. It is a heady and powerful combination.
A superb recording that reveals all the colour and dynamics of these complex and passionate scores.