László LAJTHA (1892-1963)
Symphony No. 2, Op.27 [29:51]
Variations, Op.44 [40:36]
Pécs Symphony Orchestra/Nicolás Pasquet
rec. Ferenc Liszt Concert Hall, Pécs, Hungary, May 1995
NAXOS 8.573644 [70:27]

This disc is the second instalment in Naxos’s reissue of the complete Lajtha symphonies and assorted orchestral music, formerly on the Marco Polo label. When I reviewed the first instalment, containing the First Symphony (review) I felt that Lajtha’s individual voice was worth hearing, so I was interested to see what the next instalment of his works sounded like.

The larger work on the disc is the set of (orchestral) Variations, Op. 44. This came about as the result of a collaboration between Lajtha and the Hungarian film maker, Georg Hӧllering. In the 1930s Hӧllering had asked Bartók to write the background music to a film about the great Hungarian Plain, but Bartók, who held Lajtha in high esteem, decided to recommend the younger composer for the task. The result was a very successful collaboration, and this led to the film maker inviting Lajtha to provide the incidental music for his film of T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in the late 1940s. Highly unusually, Hӧllering and Eliot requested that Lajtha compose the music before the film was shot, aiming to adjust the pictures and text to it later. As a result, “Variations” can be viewed as an autonomous composition, independent of the film.

The score certainly does not sound to me much like film music. The variations, eleven of them, are based on an original theme of the composer’s and are not clearly separated. They tend to drift from one into the next so that, without separate tracking, it is difficult to be sure to which variation one is listening. Some of the variations have a clearly individual character. For example, what might be Variation 4 is a burleske, involving flute and side-drum, whereas around Variation 9 we get a bleak threnody on cor anglais above a timpani roll. My overall impression is that the work, akin to an extended version of Kodály’s Peacock Variations, could only be Hungarian, but there are various suggestions of eclecticism on the composer’s part. The theme has very brief harp-accompanied passages that sound just like moments from the opening of the slow movement of Bax’s First Symphony (could Lajtha ever have heard this?). Rather more plausibly, later passages recall Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and around what might be the second variation I was getting whiffs of Kodály’s Dances of Galánta. Near the end, squawking brass suggest shades of Arnold, although his comparable music mostly appeared many years after these variations were written.

The film won two prizes at the Venice Film Festival of 1951 and the booklet notes suggest that, although aspects of the film also came in for some criticism, it was generally agreed Lajtha’s music was flawless. The piece certainly has some good writing for wind and makes effective use of a variety of percussion (including cimbalom), but I don’t feel that it can be described as flawless. Of course, much depends on the quality of the performance it is given. I don’t know, which ensemble Lajtha was expecting would perform the work, but there are a lot of scurrying string figures and many passages require unison string playing of great accuracy. This sort of writing demands the kind of crack string ensemble that the Pecs Symphony Orchestra sadly does not possess. What sounds like only a medium-sized body of strings, here is not really sufficiently expert or well-enough rehearsed to provide the necessary accuracy and there are some fairly ragged passages. The performance here takes forty plus minutes and, for me, overstayed its welcome. The booklet notes indicate that the composer expected the piece to last about thirty minutes so one might think a problem is simply that the performance drags. That said, my impression is that, despite the difficulties, the performance is not too slow – the work is just not sufficiently distinguished.

From a piece of music written to accompany a film, which doesn’t sound like film music, we move to the first work on the disc - a symphony that (in places) actually does sound very much as though it could be film music. The second symphony was completed in 1938, but has remained unpublished – possibly because the composer deposited it with his editor in Paris without indicating the tempo or length of the movements, and neglected to return to it after the war to rescue the score. The work’s first performance took place as recently as 1988. It is in three movements and only the middle one has a tempo marking (Molto vivace e leggiero).

To me this work does not sound particularly Hungarian overall and, as with the First Symphony, there is little trace of folk influences or much influence of other Hungarian composers - with the exception of Bartók. The first movement opens emphatically with two staccato notes, followed by tam-tam and side drum contributions and sets a tone reminiscent of early Havergal Brian – albeit less cantankerous. The trudging theme and unison string melodies that follow are often intense, sombre and brooding, and it is tempting to see the composer recalling his experiences of the First World War whilst, in 1938, being able to infer the likely future. At various stages there are shades of Sibelius and Martinů. Throughout the work – and particularly in the first movement – there are also passages with some similarities to Bartók’s night music. I suspect that this work was given the lion’s share of the rehearsal time, because the performance is somewhat more convincing than that of the “Variations” – especially in the fast but dreamlike second movement. The opening of the last movement once again features the two staccato notes, but the development that follows is not just a re-run of the first movement. An unusual feature of the scoring is the inclusion of a piano, which principally makes its presence felt here.

As with the recording of the First Symphony the acoustic is somewhat reverberant – albeit not unreasonably so – and the recording is generally very acceptable. The booklet is pretty thin but there is quite a lot of information packed in it in a small font. Given that we are hardly likely to see a better alternative version of the symphony for a while this bargain-price disc passes muster and can be welcomed, despite some reservations.

Bob Stevenson

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