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László LAJTHA (1892-1963)
Symphony No.4 “Spring”, Op.52 [26.10]
Suite No.2, Op.38 [25.28]
Symphony No.3, Op.45 [22.37]
Pécs Symphony Orchestra/Nicolás Pasquet
rec. Ferenc Liszt Concert Hall, Pecs (Hungary) September 1995
NAXOS 8.573645 [74.15]

Here is the latest installment in the ongoing series of Naxos reissues of the works of this little-known Hungarian symphonist and, this time, we get two symphonies.

Lajtha’s two-movement Third Symphony, of 1948, is placed last on this disc. According to the booklet notes it is derived from music that Lajtha was invited to compose by the film director, Georg Hӧllering, for the film version of T. S. Eliot’s verse play Murder in the Cathedral (which concerns the martyrdom of Thomas Becket). Highly unusually, rather than being asked to provide background music to an otherwise finished film, the composer was asked to provide the music first so that it could be recorded and pictures and text fitted around the recording. After its release the film won two prizes at the 1951 Venice Film Festival but it was not appreciated by other critics or the public and the music was generally regarded as its best feature. As shown in the booklet notes by an extract from one of his contemporary letters (probably poorly translated/proof-read) Lajtha was obviously bemused by the commission: “I do not compose the background, I do not explain anything by music – Hӧllering has comprehended that it just cannot be done and it also a useless exercise or to do so (sic)”.

The symphony’s first movement (Lento, quasi rubato) is dark and crepuscular – rather like a Bartok night piece – and it begins with a mournful clarinet melody that is gradually joined by other instrumental parts. One wonders which orchestra the composer was writing for because a little way in there is an anguished and very exposed string theme, punctuated by interjections from the timpani and accompanied by pizzicato lower strings, that needs a first class string section to bring it off. Sadly, the strings of the Pécs orchestra are not first class and the effect here is ragged. The second and final movement (Allegro molto e agitato) is loud and brassy, with side-drum outbursts and, occasionally, a bell tolls. There is a section where the various wind instruments (mainly woodwind) seem to queue up to offer their contribution. The overall effect is to make the music sound like a Hungarian version of the music of middle-period Havergal Brian. Strangely, whilst some of the above description may seem to fit the film’s subject matter, I never had the impression that any of the music would be a good match for it.

Readers familiar with my previous reviews of Lajtha symphonies in this series may have experienced a sensation of déjŕ vu. Lajtha seems not to have developed much as a symphonist and many of my earlier comments about his music are equally appropriate here. Moreover, the Pécs orchestra is not one of the finest and the same applies to my comments about the performance. That said the principal element of repetition is in the information about the film. This is because it is much the same information that accompanied the notes of the Orchestral Variations Op.44 from the second disc that I reviewed. The reason for this is simply that the film music spawned more than one derived composition – not only the Variations, Op. 44 but also the Symphony No 3, Op. 45 and the Harp Quintet No. 2, Op. 46.

Following his return to Hungary, after an extended stay in London to compose the film music, Lajtha was to be punished by the Hungarian authorities by being deprived of his passport and stripped of his academic posts and the late 1940s and early 1950s marked a bleak period for him. This is far from evident in the music of the Fourth Symphony (placed first on the disc) which appears to be mostly light and carefree. There are three movements – Allegro molto, Allegretto and Vivace. The first seems to depict rustic cavortings – although I thought I detected occasional evocations of traffic (car horns?) – and it ends with a lyrical violin solo. The second movement Allegretto is more of an Andante in this performance but this works well enough. According to the booklet notes the symphony’s subtitle (“Spring”) probably results from the last movement. This jigs about a lot – not always in a particularly Spring-like way - and it often sounds a bit like Ibert’s Divertissement. Without the score to hand I cannot determine whether the booklet’s reference to a “sweeping round dance…in typical 16/8 metre” is correct, but the impression I have is that the bars/phrases have six beats so something seems to be amiss with this description. As usual in these performances, the strings are slightly ragged but the woodwind (including contra-bassoon) is very good and there is a powerful contribution from the timpani that is well caught.

The Fourth is probably Lajtha’s most popular symphony and it even receives occasional outings on BBC Radio 3 (albeit only on the Through the Night programme). Needless to say, the Hungarian authorities greeted it unfavourably. I cannot sympathise with the Soviet ideology from which they took their cue but it has to be said that the symphony’s sound world is all too familiar and there is nothing that could reasonably be described as original. Unlike contemporary composers such as Martinu, where the composer’s characteristic fingerprints are so often evident, Lajtha’s style is pretty vacuous and this is not really a significant work.

The disc’s filler is the second of Lajtha’s orchestral suites and this dates from 1943. The music was originally intended for a one-act dance comedy to be called Le bosquet des quatre Dieux (The Grove of the Four Gods) - the orchestral score of which was either lost or (more likely) never completed. Whilst a four-hand working piano score exists the only four movements that appear to have been orchestrated were brought together in what is, effectively, a ballet suite. The plot is set in mythological times and concerns statues of the gods Zeus, Hermes, Aphrodite and Ares coming to life and indulging in various seductions. Their places are taken by power-thirsty mortals and it seems that the work was intended to poke fun at fascist dictators.

The suite is tonal, noisy, colourful and occasionally comic with some sections sounding like the Bartok of the Concerto for Orchestra. After the opening Vivace movement the subsequent Prestissimo scurries around using harp and percussion, leading to a rather naive tune - another exposed string passage which gets the Pécs Orchestra’s usual somewhat scraggy response. It is difficult to imagine what part of the action this would have been intended to accompany. The subsequent Molto quieto third movement begins with a clarinet melody and, presumably, is intended to evoke lovers’ trysts. The final Vivace starts with what sounds like a wasps’ nest and then develops a march-like theme in xylophone and harp. There is a brass blare near the end, which is well recorded, but the suite ends with a musical sneeze – the Hungarian device intended to show that nothing is to be taken seriously.

Recording and performance here are very much to the standard of other discs in this series – which is to say perfectly adequate to get to know the music – if you really want to. The readable booklet is slightly more expansive than usual for Naxos (three pages) but in the usual tiny script and, as indicated above, it may contain some proof-reading errors. My conclusions from the previous discs are equally applicable here. We are unlikely to see better alternative versions of the symphonies for a while so this bargain-price disc can be welcomed, in spite of my continuing reservations.

Bob Stevenson

Previous review: Jim Westhead



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