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László LAJTHA (1892–1963)
Complete Works for String Orchestra
Symphonie Les Soli Op.33 (1941) [31:29]
Sinfonietta No.1 Op.43 (1946) [19:45]
Sinfonietta No.2 Op.62 (1956) [24:05]
Budapest Chamber Symphony/Simone Fontanelli (Op. 33); Imre Rohmann (Op. 43); Péter Csaba (Op. 62)
rec. live, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 8 December 2012 (Op. 43); 26 January 2013 (Op. 62); 23 February 2013 (Op. 33)
First recordings except Op. 43

During his lifetime László Lajtha was mentioned, alongside Bartók and Kodály, as one of "les trios grands hongrois". Unlike the other two, however, from the late 1940s his name began to fade into obscurity outside his native country. His music was suppressed by the Communist régime in Hungary due to his support for the 1956 uprising. Not only this, but he lost his job and his passport was withheld for fourteen years. Over recent years his music has been rehabilitated and a glance at the CD catalogue reveals that there’s much to be had. A while ago I came across his complete String Quartets in compelling performances by the Auer String Quartet and issued on four volumes by Hungaroton. They are well-worth seeking out. Then there are the nine symphonies with the Orchestre Symphonique de Pécs conducted by Nicolas Pasquet, well recorded and issued by Marco Polo; No. 3, Op. 45 is especially fine and is my favourite. Lajtha’s prolific compositional oeuvre also includes choral works, three ballet scores and some film music.

Symphonie Les Soli Op.33 was penned in 1941 and calls for an extended string ensemble with harp and percussion. The title takes its cue from the instrumental solos inscribed into the score, Lajtha giving each string soloist his moment in the sun. In the opening movement it’s the double-bass’ turn. It’s marked Concert joyeux: Presto and that’s exactly what you get, a busy, scurrying, whirlwind, brilliantly orchestrated and imbued with good humour and geniality. One of the themes reminds me of the ‘Playful Pizzicato’ tune in Britten’s Simple Symphony. In the second movement the viola is in the spotlight. A homage to the painter Jean-Antoine Watteau and his picture Gilles, the music’s sad and sombre demeanour reflects the painting’s melancholic Pierrot figure. The forlorn and gloomy mood spills into the solo cello’s plaintive strains in the following movement, where Lajtha etches an autumnal landscape. The dolefulness is allayed in the Presto finale, the Mendelssohnian lightness of which lifts the spirits and restores balance. The solo violin takes centre-stage with Péter Somogyi rising to the occasion admirably. This is a first recording, and the Budapest Chamber Symphony under Simone Fontanelli deliver a well characterized and atmospheric reading of this delightful music.

Five years later in 1946, Lajtha composed his Sinfonietta No.1 Op.43, one of his most popular and enduring works. It’s lightly orchestrated and shows a French influence no doubt from the time he spent in Paris studying with Vincent d’Indy. It’s also infused with Hungarian folk elements; Lajtha frequently accompanied Bartók and Kodály collecting folk music and established a name for himself in the field of ethnomusicology. The two outer movements, which are playful and high-spirited, frame a slow movement which is richly melodic, serene and reflective. Marked Pas trop lent it has an entrancing passage for solo violin. Imre Rohmann and the Budapest players bring a new lease of life to this enchanting score. An alternative version on Hungaroton (HCD 31452) played by the Hungarian Chamber Orchestra under Vilmos Tatrai, who incidentally was a student of Lajtha, sounds boxy in comparison.

Fast forward another ten years and we have the Sinfonietta No.2 Op.62, a larger scaled canvas than its predecessor and emotionally more wide-ranging. The style is weightier, more formal and less intimate. The opening movement has some highly colourful and unusual string sonorities. An atmosphere of calm and tranquility, tinged with a hint of sadness, pervades the more lengthy middle movement. The sprightly finale brings a happy end to the proceedings, with the violin section’s diaphanous and sparkling tones a positive asset. Apparently Nadia Boulanger was very taken with this work which, like the Op. 33, is here receiving its premiere recording.

As an introduction to Lajtha’s music, this fascinating and well-recorded release is as good a place as any to start. A further bonus is the excellent accompanying annotations which supply detailed background to the music, setting it within a biographical context.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Hubert Culot


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