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Laszlo LAJTHA (1892-1963)
Suite pour orchestra, Op.19 [21:38]
In Memoriam, Op.35 [20:32]
Symphony No. 1, Op.24 [19:53]
Pécs Symphony Orchestra/Nicolás Pasquet
rec. Ferenc Liszt Concert Hall, Pécs, Hungary, May 1996
NAXOS 8.573643 [60:02]

Lajtha was a Hungarian composer born in the decade or so after Bartok, Kodaly and Dohnanyi and like his own contemporary, Leo Weiner, he was very much overshadowed by them. He studied in Budapest, Leipzig, Geneva and Paris and it is the French influence on his musical language (he was a pupil of d’Indy) that was probably decisive in determining his accessible style. I only became aware of his existence after buying an old Hungaroton recording of his Fourth and Ninth Symphonies (still available) whilst a student, although the music didn’t strike me as particularly memorable at the time. I subsequently found myself working alongside a colleague with the same surname as the composer and asked if he was related. He turned out to be the composer’s grandson and, given the general neglect of his grandfather’s music, he was astonished that any of his own contemporaries would even be aware of the composer’s existence. Not much has changed in that respect in almost a couple of generations, but Naxos has now re-issued all of the Marco Polo recordings of Lajtha’s nine symphonies (he was probably Hungary’s foremost symphonist) so, at least, the music remains out there and it is actually worth making its acquaintance.

Starting with the Symphony No 1 of 1936, which is placed last on the disc, I found myself struggling to find a way of describing the music in terms of similar styles. The booklet notes that, as with several of Lajtha’s more famous contemporaries, the composer collected folk music but, in the few examples of his works I have been able to hear, the folk influence does not seem to be overt. It is certainly not obvious here. The first movement (Allegro) has a mysterious and atmospheric opening that hints at early Brian and – possibly – Tubin but this is an individual rather than an eclectic voice. The atmosphere is maintained, despite some slightly bombastic moments with timpani and cymbals, and the music doesn’t outstay its welcome. The second movement (Andante) starts with an eerie clarinet melody against a single line of strings and timpani pulsing in the background. There is plenty of textural variety – with flute and harp weaving in and out – and the movement is memorable more for atmosphere than melody. The third movement (Allegro Molto) is largely dominated by the strings but sliced through with brass fanfares. There are hints here of a somewhat jollier side of Sibelius – or even Moeran – and bombast returns in the coda.

The performance is good – certainly good enough to enjoy the music, although one is aware that the orchestra is not of the front rank. I suppose this is the 1990s equivalent of an outfit older readers will remember - the Louisville Orchestra - and the string sound occasionally has moments of suspect security. The recording is clear if slightly cavernous (like viewing an Albert Hall prom concert from the gallery) which actually works to the music’s advantage here but not quite so much in the Suite, which is placed first on the disc.

Lajtha wrote three ballets and the Suite is drawn from his initial effort, Lysistrata. There are four movements, of which the first is ‘Prelude et Hymne’. This starts with a busy toccata-like string theme (with shades of Roussel and Honegger) that eventually gives way to an atmospheric slower section, dominated by the woodwind, which reminded me of Kodaly. When it finished I was somewhat surprised to see that we had only just arrived at the second track. The following ‘Marche burleske’ develops a heavy tread and this is followed by a slow waltz-like movement (‘Valse lente’). Finally, of all things, there is a ‘Can-Can’. This strikes me as more of a burlesque than the second movement and it feels very out of place in a ballet based on a play by Aristophanes, concerning the struggle between Athens and Sparta and the efforts of warriors’ wives on both sides to end the conflict. Strange!

In Memoriam has a sub-title: ‘Piece Symphonique pour Orchestre’ and is described in the booklet as an “eloquent protest against war”. As a young man the composer had served as an artillery officer and had first-hand experience of the horrors of armed conflict. The first half of the piece has an ominous march-like tread on timpani and may depict a procession of victims and the agony of mourners. Occasionally the music suggests cries followed by a shocked silence before the music returns to the slow march. I have heard more vivid musical depictions of war and – despite some affinities with Shostakovich in the second half - this is not too harrowing. The work was dedicated to the BBC. It strikes me that, at 20 minutes, it is rather longer than it needs to be if it is to be performed more than once in a blue moon.

Not great music then, but mostly interesting and a fairly individual voice, given reliable and generally satisfactory performances and recordings. At bargain price this is certainly worth exploring.

Bob Stevenson



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