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László LAJTHA (1892-1963)
Symphony No 7, Op. 63 “Revolution” [31:12]
Suite No 3, Op. 56 [31:04]
Hortobágy (film music: suite), Op.21 [13:25]
Pécs Symphony Orchestra / Nicolás Pasquet
rec. Ferenc Liszt Concert Hall, Pécs, Hungary, 1994
NAXOS 8.573647 [75:41]

The complete cycle of the symphonies of the Hungarian László Lajtha, performed by the Pécs Symphony Orchestra under Nicolás Pasquet, was one of the highlights of the Marco Polo catalogue during the 1990s. The merits of the “label of discovery” (as their advertising proclaimed themselves) extended into many arcane areas of the repertory. Although the standards of recording and performance could sometimes be alarmingly variable, the music which was featured on these Marco Polo CDs was invariably of interest. Not everything could be on the same level, of course. I found the string quartets of Villa-Lobos to be consistently more interesting than those of Spohr; and the symphonies of Raff, Rubinstein and Spohr (again) served more to demonstrate the wayward tastes of our Victorian forebears than to display any unjustly neglected masterpieces. But then there were recordings which really did reveal what we had been missing. Among rarities by Respighi and Havergal Brian there were complete areas of undiscovered territory, amidst which the symphonies of Braga Santos, Liatoshinsky and Lajtha proved to be discoveries of rare quality indeed.

It is therefore a matter for delight that these Lajtha issues are now finding their way onto the budget Naxos label, where their reduced cost will hopefully introduce them to a whole new generation of listeners. The disc here is the fifth in the series devoted to the symphonies of Lajtha, with Nos. 8 and 9 still to come. The booklet note by Emöke Solymosi Tari is shown as “edited by Naxos 2017” but appears to be substantially the same as that which came with the original Marco Polo release twenty-three years earlier (although it still retains its reference to the composer spending a year in London in 1974, when of course 1947 should be the date). Unchanged too, of course, is the recording itself, still attributed to the “Pécs Symphony Orchestra” although the band has now changed its name to the “Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra”.

Lajtha wrote the Revolution Symphony in response to the Hungarian uprising of 1956, mercilessly crushed by Russian and Warsaw Pact forces. Well, he wanted to call it Revolution, but under the circumstances discretion prevailed. Although the original subtitle Autumn was also abandoned when the symphony was first performed on Hungarian radio two years later, Lajtha was circumspect about this in his programme note. The symphony was widely performed through western Europe and Canada, but seems to have subsequently dropped from favour. The Marco Polo release appears to have been its first recording. By comparison the two other scores on this CD, the Third Suite and the film music from Hartobágy, are fairly lightweight pieces designed to appeal to “the general public” (as the composer’s widow recorded). Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 there does not seem to have been much attempt made to reinstate the composer as a major figure in Hungarian music of the twentieth century, although his body of symphonies must surely loom large in any proper consideration of the period.

In fact, Lajtha’s Seventh, like Vaughan Williams’s Fourth, stands somewhat apart from its neighbouring symphonies both in its acerbic bitterness and its violence of expression. It does, however, differ from the Vaughan Williams in many ways, not least the presence of some sections of emotional warmth which develop from a saxophone solo in the first movement into a string cantilena, and a similar passage which forms a central section to the somewhat severe slow movement (with a use of tuned percussion that echoes in some ways the Vaughan Williams of the Sinfonia Antartica). It is the finale, however, which is the most impressive, a tertiary structure where a Prokofiev-like sense of bustle surrounds a more sinister march with Mahlerian echoes and undertones. This suddenly gives way to a Hungarian-sounding chorale, scored with all the richness and boldness which we find in Messiaen, before it is abruptly interrupted by a series of percussive fusillades which peter away into a nothingness which seems to beg the return of the chorale in triumph—an expectation which is inevitably disappointed. The meaning of this music is clear now, and it must have been equally clear to contemporary audiences. There are echoes of Lajtha’s cosmopolitan background (he studied under d’Indy, and spent much of his career between the wars in the West) but these influences are subsumed into the composer’s own style, and this symphony is a most impressive piece of work. The use of the harp during the first two movements, sometimes providing an impressionist backwash but also assuming a prickly prominence, is especially striking.

Similar cosmopolitan influences are to be found in the score for Hartobágy, although oddly enough the composer in a lecture for the BBC in 1948 proposed the theory that film music should be “purged of all foreign elements”. Echoes can be heard of both Bax’s Third Symphony and Moeran’s symphony—both available in successful recordings at the time of Lajtha’s visit to Britain—as well as even more obviously a near-quotation from Debussy in the skirling woodwind phrases of the second movement. All of this seems rather odd in a work written for a documentary on the Hungarian countryside; but the lighter Suite has plenty of Hungarian elements, albeit in a style that is more reminiscent of Kodály than Bartók. It seems odd that Lajtha should have vetoed the inclusion of this latter work in a programme to celebrate the centenary of the Hungarian Philharmonic Orchestra; but his remark, that he saw no reason to join “the worms”, hardly seems likely to have recommended him to the Communist authorities.

In the case of some of Marco Polo’s pioneering releases, later issues from other companies with better orchestras or recordings have rendered the originally valuable CDs less desirable than they were when they were unchallenged in the catalogues. But the recordings by the Pécs orchestra were really pretty good to begin with, and it is not perhaps so surprising that since the 1990s no other performers or labels have felt the need to enter into the lists with challengers. Indeed, this series still remains unchallenged as the only representation of Lajtha’s music for full orchestra in the catalogues. The playing under the enthusiastic Nicolás Pasquet is excellent (perhaps a little underpowered in the full-bodied string passages in the symphony) and the recording is well-balanced, even though perhaps the brass are too close to the microphones to allow for their full resonance to be heard. One hopes that the discovery of the composer, aided by these bargain reissues, will take on new momentum. And, in the meantime, these Naxos CDs will more than suffice, as previous reviewers on this site have already reported.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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