It’s inevitable and apparently obligatory when considering
Miklos Rozsa’s concert music to comment on the composer’s own ‘double life’
description of his career, that is his explicit and oft-made distinction
between his work-for-hire in Hollywood and his ‘serious’ pieces for the concert
hall. But those soundtrack fans who might approach his concert works with some
trepidation as a result will find that the distinction is more apparent than
real – it’s the wary caveat of a composer who was concerned that his Hollywood
reputation would prejudice the ‘classical’ music world against him. Fortunately
with each passing year that prejudice is fast dissipating as more new recordings
of Rozsa’s delightful concertos and orchestral works appear.
In fact it’s worth noting in passing that the difference
between Rozsa’s film and concert works is simply one of degree, not of kind.
Film music, by its very nature, needs to be direct, instantly accessible; a
concert-hall piece, by contrast, can take its time, develop more slowly and
reveal its secrets at its own pace, not one determined by dramatic exigencies.
So to call these Rozsa concert works ‘serious’, as opposed to a classic film score
such as Ben-Hur for example, is not to suggest that his film music is
somehow less worthy – despite the implication of Rozsa’s ‘double life’ phrase –
only that the pragmatic function of a film score dictated a somewhat different
approach for the composer.
Commissioned by cellist Janos Starker in 1967, the Cello
Concerto, Op. 32 is a splendidly moody piece inflamed with all the gypsy
passion of the composer’s unmistakable Eastern-European idiom – that style so
familiar from innumerable film scores. The first movement contrasts dark-hued
lyrical passages for the orchestra with virtuosic, even ebullient writing for
the soloist. In the second movement, the cello’s melodic argument becomes
increasingly impassioned set against a misterioso accompaniment. The
finale, an insistent and uncompromising rondo, ratchets that sense of
tension still tighter. As the booklet notes for this ASV release quite properly
remark, this important work ‘is a wonderful showpiece for the instrument and
deserves far wider currency’.
The same could be said for the Sinfonia Concertante,
Op. 29 – to my mind arguably an even finer work than the solo concerto. The
creation of this powerful and stirring piece (actually a double concerto for
violin and cello) is related with rueful humour by Rozsa in his autobiography:
legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz – for whom Rozsa had written his best-known
Violin Concerto – and cellist pal Gregor Piatigorsky wanted a concerto they
could perform together. Rozsa naturally took up the commission with enthusiasm,
only to find at the rehearsals that the two soloists bickered like rival prima
donnas about the amount of allotted time the other had in the limelight.
Rozsa reworked the piece extensively to placate them both, ensuring that if one
had a brilliant passage then it was immediately followed by a passage of equal
virtuosity for the other. Years later Rozsa returned to the score and was able
to undo the structural damage caused by the demands of the original soloists,
and it is this revised version that is presented here.
We are now in the enviable position of having several rival
accounts of both of these works to choose from on CD, but anyone tempted by
this new disc will certainly not regret their choice. Cellist Raphael Wallfisch
is certainly up to the task, being a pupil of original dedicatee Piatigorsky.
There’s a real sense of urgency, of dramatic bite to his playing throughout, a
sense heightened by conductor Barry Wordsworth’s brisk pace-setting: his Sinfonia
Concertante is over three minutes faster than that of James Sedares on
Koch. Another point in the new disc’s favour is the bright, realistic recording
of both soloists and BBC Concert Orchestra, far clearer than the unfortunately
rather muddy acoustic of those pioneering Sedares / New Zealand discs made back
in the mid-1990s. So Rozsa aficionados (whether you already know his concert
music or not) need not hesitate to acquire this compelling disc.
Selected other recordings:
- Lynn Harrell; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra / Yoel Levi.
- Brinton Smith; New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / James
Sedares. Koch International Classics 37402-2
- Peter Rejto; Pecs Hungarian Symphony Orchestra / Howard
Williams. Silva ScreenSILKD6011
- Andras Agoston; Laszlo Fenjo; Philharmonia Hungarica /
Werner Andreas Albert. CPO 999 839-2
- Igor Gruppman; Richard Boch; New Zealand Symphony
Orchestra / James Sedares. Koch International Classics 37304-2