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László LAJTHA (1892-1963)
Suite No. 3 Op. 56 [31:.04] Hortobágy – Film Music (Suite) Op. 21 [13:25]
Symphony No. 7 Op. 63 “Revolution Symphony” (1956-1967) [31:12]
Pécs Symphony Orchestra/Nicolás Pasquet
Orchestral Works - Volume 5 NAXOS 8.573647 [75:41]
More than twenty years ago Marco Polo, as their name implies, were exploring and recording music of composers almost entirely unknown here in the UK, in America and across much of Europe. One such figure to have emerged as important and interesting was László Lajtha. The several volumes of his orchestral music are now being re-released by Naxos at half the price of the originals.
The only disc I got to know was the one that included the 5th and 6th Symphonies (now on 8.573646). I have always enjoyed the former, which is not only quite powerful and excitable but also includes one of the most atmospheric and brilliantly scored slow movements I can ever recall. I had not realised that Lajtha wrote three film scores but I can quite see why he was a natural choice.
A film about the Hungarian rural landscape by the Austrian Georg Höllering was Lajtha’s first, from some time in the mid 1930’s. The title was Hortobágy - a day in the life of the remote Hungarian plain. In 1944 the composer took two movements and created a suite. The Grand Hungarian Plain is mysterious and moody. A contrasting Gallop in the Puszta highlights the horsemen as they pass before you. It is colourful stuff but does not match the inspiration of the symphonies.
To explain Lajtha’s style, I could perhaps say that he comes halfway between Kodály and Bartók. As in the above film music, Lajtha uses folk melodies, or perhaps I should say normally folk-inspired melodies. He does not do it as clearly or as consistently as Kodály. He has a strong rhythmic drive. He can compose in a really atmospheric and nocturnal language not dissimilar to Bartók. He also acts as another foil, because neither Kodály or Bartók wrote symphonies or thought along such traditional lines.
What makes this particular disc attractive is that the three works contrast well. Suite No. 3 was to have been played initially between Bartók’s Divertimento and Kodály’s Peacock Variations. That gives you a further idea of where you might pitch Lajtha’s style. The composer’s wife even described it the notes tell us, as “gay and melodic”. Like most suites, it has five movements. The fourth is more like the passion and pain heard in the first movement of the 5th Symphony, otherwise there are many easy-listening moments, especially in the lovely Andante, movement two. The vivacious and brilliantly scored finale is the longest movement, marked Gai. It has many colourful passages, including one for xylophone and some “disneyfied” passages for harp, solo violin and other percussion. Definitely “something for the general public”, to quote the widow Lajtha.
In preparing to listen to the 7th Symphony, I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the 5th and 6th. I feel that there is a definite sense of a contrasting yet devolving trilogy, probably not really intended. The 5th is ultimately a tragic work as if anticipating trouble to come, the 6th lifts the mood and is light-headed almost, with many memorable ideas. The 7th was written in the aftermath of the failed Hungarian revolution in 1956. It was only after its completion that the original nomenclature Autumn was altered to Revolution which had probably been the composer’s initial working title. As proof of that, the finale, the shortest movement, quotes the Marseillaise, has a central solemn chorale section for the wind and ends with a melody recalling the Hungarian National hymn. There are three movements with, again, a mysterious and evocatively orchestrated middle movement which, nevertheless, has some violent and sorrowful episodes. The strong use of the saxophone is a characteristic throughout, as is the woodblock.
The first performance could not take place in Hungary but followed a couple of year’s later and was heard in many centres afterwards, before fading into obscurity.
One’s overall appreciation of the work is hampered however by a boxy recording and a not always reliable orchestral balance created by a somewhat underpowered string section. However, it was recorded in 1994 and no doubt the orchestra has developed since then as it had only been resurrected only a few years before. It should be remembered that the work has not been recorded by anyone else. The booklet notes are succinct but as ever, with Naxos, appropriate and useful.