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]

When I read that ‘along with his contemporaries Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi, László Lajtha was one of the leading Hungarian composers in the first half of the twentieth century and his position as the country’s greatest symphonist of that time is unrivalled’ I felt humbled once again since I had never come across him. If he holds such a position in Hungary’s musical history I cannot understand how I can have been so totally unaware of his existence. However, better late than never and I am very pleased to have been able to plug another gap in my knowledge.

Lajtha’s second symphony is another of those whose content seems to presage the forthcoming conflagration that was World War II and that got me wondering as to whether there are any composers who are writing such symphonies today; perish the thought that such concerns should motivate anyone to do the same though it is doubtful there would be anyone left to hear the music or anyone to play it if there was another. As it was there was much music occasioned by the disturbing thoughts of a possible oncoming war in the late 1930s when Lajtha’s symphony was written (1938) and much was happening that gave rise to such fears, despite Neville Chamberlain and his famous note received from Hitler which lead him to proclaim that there would be “peace in our time”. Forgive the pun but it does seem that composers are far more attuned to the prevailing mood than politicians. The second symphony is cast in three movements rather than the more usual four with the two outer movements slow and brooding and framing the dream-like central movement whose theme is driven along with much more pace. It was of no surprise that Lajtha was well known as a collector of folk music as were his contemporaries but then Hungary, despite its small size has always been awash with folk melodies from time immemorial and are irresistibly used in the works of Hungarian composers and there is plenty in evidence here too. Miklós Rosza famously declared that though he emigrated from Hungary musically he never left. The symphony is a powerful statement and a cry against the violence and inhumanity that war inevitably causes and Lajtha had had plenty of ghastly experiences when he was an artillery officer for four years in the First World War to motivate such feelings.

If any further proof was needed to emphasise in how much esteem Lajtha was held by musicians in Hungary then surely it must be that Bartók suggested to the Austrian film maker Georg Höllering that he chose Lajtha rather than himself to compose the incidental music for a film he was making on the puszta (the Great Hungarian Plain) and having done so to great acclaim Höllering then commissioned him to write the incidental music to the film of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Despite there being no Hungarian connection Eliot declared that the film “would not be complete without his music” adding that it would help “elevate the words and thoughts of the drama”; praise indeed! Lajtha spent a year in London working on the music and he incorporated elements into it of the two other works he wrote while there: his Third Symphony and his Second Harp Quintet. The composer intended that the work should be a self-contained concert piece and be able to be performed as a standalone piece away from the film and the music certainly proves how successful he was in ensuring that it does. The work subsequently known as 11 Variations pour Orchestre, Op.44, sur un theme simple “Les tentations” is a major orchestral work of power and import and it is very interesting that rather than being asked to ‘match’ the music to the filmic action Höllering did the opposite and matched the film to the music which explains why it sounds so genuine and not in the least artificial; no wonder it is able to exist outside and away from the film. The theme is Lajtha’s own and the variations that ensue are so inventive the work is totally engrossing and the extensive work lasts over forty minutes.

I always find it gratifying to hear what would be reasonably described as a lesser known orchestra give such committed and exciting performances as these and that is what we get from the Pécs Symphony Orchestra though we should not be surprised when we learn that its 21st century incarnation continues a tradition that is over 250 years old! Few orchestras anywhere can boast of such a long pedigree. Uruguayan born conductor Nicolás Pasquet has been their chief conductor in the past and his knowledge and respect for the orchestra is mirrored in these performances. As my introduction to the music of László Lajtha I could ask for no better and it has inspired me to go away to plug more gaps by trying to get to hear more of his music including some more of his nine symphonies.

Steve Arloff

Previous review: Bob Stevenson

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