How often is it that music that is carefree, even jolly, was written at a time, when both the composer and his country were going through traumatic and turbulent times, as if the composer was trying his best to keep his spirits and those of his countrymen up, despite the reality of their lives? That is certainly the case with Lajtha’s ‘Spring’ symphony, composed after the composer had been removed from his academic post and had his passport withdrawn in the early days of Hungary’s Communist government, when old scores were being settled and freedom of thought and expression were being severely curtailed. This was only 5 years before the 1956 revolution was crushed with Soviet tanks. The music gives no such indication of these dark days and the symphony is indeed spring-like with an upbeat mood established right at the start in the work’s enjoyable and happy sounding first movement. Lajtha’s facility for writing lyrically beautiful tunes is much in evidence towards the last few minutes of this movement, when a violin solo rises up like a lark to sing its way to the close. The symphony’s more introverted second movement contains some lush orchestration with Lajtha’s characteristic fusing of known and invented ‘Hungarian’ tunes well to the fore, while the third and final movement is even more overtly spring-like than the first, and which dances its way from start to finish. The writer of the liner notes says that it was illuminating that fellow composer Ferenc Szabó, who presumably voiced the opinion of the regime, criticised the symphony as continuing “...without scruples the undesirable form of composition in an extremely subjective spirit...”, meaning that he still clung to “Western European cosmopolitanism and formalism”. If any listener can find evidence of that rather than championing native Hungarian elements then they are a better man than I and I am Gunga Din! When you read that Szabó died in obscurity, having been stripped of his public posts, after it emerged that he denounced many of his fellow countrymen in the Soviet show trials of the 1930s (who were then summarily executed), it says more about him and the regime than it does about László Lajtha and his music.
Lajtha’s Suite No.2, which dates from 1943, saw life originally as a ballet, which was never performed as the score is believed to have been lost. Telling the story of the four Gods from Greek mythology Zeus, Hermes, Aphrodite and Ares, it imagines Zeus and Hermes as coming to life to seduce two ‘earthly maidens, Chrysilla and Philotis’. There are within the score references that were meant to ridicule fascist dictators, which the authorities were obviously oblivious to, or Lajtha’s end would surely have come much earlier. The score is lush and contains some marvellously tuneful music. As a suite it had several performances in various European cities in his lifetime.
In 1948 Lajtha was invited to London to compose music for the Austrian film director George Höllering’s film of T.S.Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Lajtha having already successfully written music for another of Höllering’s film’s on the express recommendation of Bartók. Despite it having no Hungarian connection, the music so impressed the director that, unusually, he fitted the film to the music rather than the other way round and declared that the film would have been nothing without it. The music basically exists in two forms, the ‘film music’ that emerged as Lajtha’s 11 Variations pour Orchestre, Op.44, sur un theme simple “Les tentations”, which he then reworked to become his third symphony. While the film, despite winning two prizes at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, then languished in obscurity, having found little favour with the public, the value of the music was recognised and continues to be popular today in both its incarnations. Unfortunately, for the small-minded and suspicious Hungarian Communist regime, spending year in the West with his family was frowned upon and which, in Lajtha’s case, resulted in the aforementioned loss of his positions and passport. The symphony is in two movements and comes in at under half an hour as a result of its distillation from the original variations, which last over forty minutes. It is a work which captures the imagination with its treasure chest of good tunes and highly dramatic content.
The music on the disc gets effective treatment from the Pécs Symphony Orchestra under Nicolás Pasquet, though I felt there was a slight loss on concentration in the 3rd Symphony as well as some unsteady brass playing, particularly in the second movement; it seems to be an area that lets down a lot of orchestras.
The second disc is another Naxos offering with the same orchestra and conductor presenting Lajtha’s 5th and 6th symphonies and a short extract from the only ballet he enjoyed moderate success with, Lysistrata. The writer of the liner notes points out an interesting feature of Lajtha’s symphonies, namely that the odd numbered symphonies seem to be the more weighty ones, while the even ones are lighter in content, much in the same way as Beethoven. That is certainly the case with the first on the disc, his 6th, which is unusual in two respects in comparison with his normal format in that he cast it in four movements rather than his preferred three and includes no less than eleven different percussion instruments, which are used to increase the playful nature of the music with a warning to players that they were not be used to stifle but “enrich the colour of the orchestral ensemble”, which they most certainly do. The second movement makes the first sound brash by comparison, since its marking Trčs calme is very literal in its interpretation and emerges both sweet and gentle with some really attractive solos from flute, French horn, clarinet, saxophone, cello and later tellingly ascending violins, all collaborating to describe a calm night. The third movement follows almost seamlessly inasmuch as it continues this gentle atmosphere with a waltz-like opening, which then gives way to a rather more anxious interlude before being calmed down again with echoes of Hungarian folk music, evoked by saxophone and violins among others. The final movement is marked Vif et bien rythmé which it unquestionably is, as it explodes with lively and energetic tunes once again, belying the historical background, against which it was written in 1955, the year Imre Nagy, the Chairman of Hungary’s Council of Ministers was arrested, one of the events that finally culminated in the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 (he was tried and executed in 1958).
Lajtha’s fifth symphony, written in 1952, as an odd numbered symphony follows the above- mentioned format of being much more serious in nature than the even-numbered ones and there is an overarching feeling of tragedy here, which may very well have been a musical response to events in his country. It was described as ‘very tragic, epic, like a ballad’ though it is unclear as to whether this description came from Lajtha himself or his wife, but it does aptly sum the mood up. It has some quite heartrendingly sad moments, which are set up with the use of Hungarian folk-like melodies and the odd glimpse of hope, when it comes through, only to be dashed makes the sombre mood all the more significant. Plaintive sounds from the saxophone periodically make an appearance to emphasise its sad nature and the first movement ends with a lament. The second movement of the two- movement symphony allows for no let up in mood and again its dark nature is overlaid with folk-like tunes, ensuring the listener is aware of where this tragedy is taking place. Towards the very end these sweet melodies are suddenly shattered with the restatement of the finale of the first movement, as if to underline the fact that no resolution to the tragedy has occurred.
The last piece is the overture to Lajtha’s only successful ballet written in 1933, which has hardly had any performances since 1937; why one cannot easily understand, when the music is as fine as this.
The playing is better than on the first disc and I look forward to further issues encompassing Lajtha’s other 3 symphonies.
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