Eugene ZÁDOR (1894-1977) Festival Overture (1963) [10:10] Variations on a Hungarian Folksong (1919) [30:04]
Symphony No.3 Dance Symphony (1936) [30:35]
Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV/Mariusz Smolij
rec. Studio 6, Hungarian Radio, Budapest, Hungary, 8-12 September 2014 NAXOS 8.573274 [71:03]
I was going to write that this was the first music by Eugene Zádor that I had heard but reading the liner note, I realise this is not strictly true. Zádor was yet another person displaced by the rise of the Nazis and he made his career in Hollywood in part as Miklós Rózsa's exclusive orchestrator. Although I am sure Rózsa defined the orchestral sound he wanted at least some of Zádor's musical personality must inform those great scores. This is Naxos' third disc in the series and usefully for the Zádor beginner it includes music from across his career with works written either side of his escape from the Nazis. Zádor, as with most if not all of these exiled composer/musicians continued to write absolute music as much for his own pleasure as any expectation of performance or prestige.
The disc opens with the latest work; the Festival Overture written in 1963 and first performed in December 1964 by Zubin Mehta as part of the celebrations for the opening of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new home, The Los Angeles Music Center. For all the liner-note's protestations to the contrary I find this a rather unfestive work. In fact I find it rather earnest and the least engaging music on the disc. It is almost as if Zádor wanted to purge himself of the lush excesses of his film scoring and write something abstract. Make a direct comparison to Dohnányi's Festival Overture - that composer at his most Straussian - and the impression is reinforced. 1963 was a very different time from 1923 when the Dohnányi was written but the mood of the music is contrary to its title. Not that that matters but I must admit I found it the least attractive music on the disc regardless of title or context. Also, the playing of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV is less fluent than elsewhere. The melodic shape of the themes and their rhythm have a flavour that is distinctly Central European but ultimately this is a less than memorable piece.
Fortunately, the musical quality of the remainder of the programme is higher. Both works pre-date Zádor's exile from his homeland and both exhibit a range of instrumental colour and confident handling of a large orchestra that set him in good stead as a film orchestrator. Neither work is stunningly original or particularly individual in concept or execution but they make for an enjoyable listen. To be brutally honest it is hard not to hear greater originality in works by fellow countrymen such as Kodály's Peacock Variations (1939) and Rózsa's The Vintner's Daughter Variations (1952) or further afield Reznicek's ownDance Symphony which predates the Zádor by a dozen years. That said, taken at their own worth there is attractive music in both. The Variations on a Hungarian Folksong are the earliest orchestral work listed on the website dedicated to the composer [see the end of the review for more information] and were written when he was in his mid-twenties. They start - logically enough - with a very plain presentation of the theme and build in complexity and richness with the final three variations - a Czárdas, Phantasie and Fugato - crowning the work impressively. Liner-note writer Frank K. DeWald references both Strauss and Korngold in this and the following Symphony. I had made the same note before reading the liner. This is especially true of the Symphony which feels like a musical tribute to Zádor's (pre-exile) adopted home of Vienna. Given the tensions of the time - 1937 - with Zádor and his compatriots at the centre of the gathering storm - this is a blissfully sunny work.
I enjoyed the Symphony most of the three works on this disc and it receives a confident and well played performance. The Hungarian orchestra is not the most sophisticated or virtuosic ensemble you will hear and neither is the recording of demonstration quality. Indeed, the extended violin solos in the Variations give the leader a rather wiry and airless tone. That said they play the Symphony with exactly the right kind of vigorous élan and if it does sound rather like a Korngold film score at times for me that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Listening to this work brought up all over again the chicken and egg argument of which came first: the compositional style of these Central European composers who subsequently transferred to West Coast America or the film score genre. This symphony is a perfect example; Zádor - years before he was in America - writes in a lush, sweeping 'cinematic' style which he took to Hollywood and which Hollywood liked. Why wouldn't they - the first movement is replete with exalting horns, upward-leaping melodies that sweep through the orchestra in a headily impassioned way. The second movement has lushly divided strings which counterpoint a secondary lighter dancing section with great skill - evident in the movement's closing pages when the two contrasting sections are combined. The third movement is an airy bouncing compound-time scherzo which occasionally seems to be on the point of some fugal writing before reaching another passage of lush divided string melodies with chattering woodwind in counterpoint. Divided strings open the finale too before a pastoral clarinet theme that has a hint of the Magyar about it. The main body of this movement is a Rondo, again in compound time, with Zádor making extensive use of hemiola rhythms swapping between 6/8 and 3/4 - so much that there is a nagging sense of this motif being overworked. The work closes with more Korngoldian upward leaps and a distinct sense of well-being and benevolence. Reznicek in his similarly named work chose to explore different styles of dance for each movement - Zádor might have called this a Symphony of Waltzes since 3/4 and its compound-time variants are the essence of the work.
The only slight and lingering doubt - and perhaps this is why Zádor remained an orchestrator rather than a composer of film scores - is that for all the evident brilliance of his orchestral handling the music lacks anything melodically memorable or real individuality. Harmonically Zádor is less astringent than Rózsa, less daring than Korngold. As far as this Symphony goes I do not want to linger over what it might not achieve. Instead, it is better and more worthwhile to support the fact that this is a skilfully crafted and easily appealing post-Romantic work and one that if the composers previously mentioned already appeal, is definitely worth a listen. Worth noting that the Symphony receives its world premiere recording here and the Variations the premiere of the complete set. There is an excellent website dedicated to the composer. This is infinitely better informed about the composer and his talents than I am on my brief acquaintance. On the site I was interested to notice a famous picture of a group of composer/arrangers - including Zádor - at MGM having a meal together. This picture features a very young André Previn sitting at the table's head. It's also included in Previn's brilliantly witty autobiographical book No Minor Chords which anyone with an interest in the life and travails of a film composer in the 1950s should read.
Ultimately this is a very typical Naxos release; unfamiliar repertoire performed with conviction in good sound accompanied by informative and useful notes. Others can make my own judgement about Zádor's place in the pantheon of Hungarian/Central European composers who went on to a career in America. For myself, I am pleased to have heard this work but it does not make me want to seek out the earlier releases (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2).