Saturday 31 December 2016

The Pécs Symphony Orchestra under Nicholas Pasquet provide spirited, idiomatic performances of Hungarian composer László Lajtha’s Symphony No.2 and Variations, Op. 44 on a re-release from Naxos

Naxos recorded the nine symphonies of the Hungarian composer László Lajtha on its sister label Marco Polo in the 1990s. Now they have begun the process of re-issuing these works on the Naxos label commencing with Symphony No.1 coupled with Suite pour orchestre (8.573643) and now the release of Symphony No.2 coupled with the substantial Variations, Op. 44 with the Pécs Symphony Orchestra (recently renamed as Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra)  conducted by Nicholas Pasquet


László Lajtha (1892-1963) was born in Budapest and studied with Victor von Herzfeld (1856-1919) at the Budapest Academy. He was later associated with Bartok and Kodály in their folk song collecting and taught at the National Conservatory. He travelled widely and was known internationally for his folk music research. After the Second World War, Lajtha was appointed Director of Music for Hungarian Radio, director of the Museum of Ethnography and of the Budapest National Conservatory. His symphonic piece In Memoriam was the first new work to be premiered in Budapest when concerts could be given there again. In 1947 to 1948 Lajtha spent a year in London, having been asked by the film director Georg Höllering to compose music for his film of T. S. Eliot's verse drama Murder in the Cathedral. On his return to Hungary he lost all of his official positions due to political reasons. In 1951 he was awarded the Kossuth Prize for his activities in folk-music research and was the only Hungarian composer since Liszt to be elected a corresponding member of the French Académie de Beaux-Arts.

His compositions include an operetta, ten string quartets, three ballets, choral and vocal music and the nine symphonies.

Lajtha’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 27 was written in 1938 and reflected his experiences in the First World War as well as anticipating the coming violence and horror of the coming war. It was not published or performed in his lifetime. It was first performed by the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Jancsovics in 1988. In three movements the movement has dramatic opening orchestral chords with a tam-tam stroke before the dramatic theme heaves itself along, weighty and intense. Soon there is a quieter section where a piano and pizzicato strings underline the theme, coloured by percussion, brass and woodwind.  Moments of tremendous atmosphere develop where Lajtha’s Hungarian roots are more apparent. There is a wistful passage for strings as well as moments of shimmering strings out of which the piano and woodwind weave some lovely phrases. Later timpani beat out dramatically as do other percussion as the music rises. Woodwind and brass continue to colour the music in a passage of great beauty before moving quickly ahead with the most dramatic weaving of orchestral ideas. Eventually the woodwind weave a quieter, hauntingly atmospheric passage before the decisive coda.

Movement II Molto vivace e leggiero opens with a light textured orchestral idea that moves along in a light footed manner weaving some very fine ideas. Often there is a sense of joy, at other times a heavier, more dramatic tread. Often the music finds forward moving dance rhythms. Woodwind appear through the orchestral texture bringing a very Hungarian flavour with the music fairly bubbling along at times. A solo violin brings a jolly little tune, again Hungarian in flavour before a myriad of instruments appear through the texture. The music calms towards the end before finding a cheerful little coda.

Two heavy chords from the orchestra open Movement III before the strings take the theme forward, again with various instruments weaving through the orchestral tapestry, a piano heard underneath. Soon the opening chords are reflected in a dramatic, heavy orchestral outburst as the music gains in drama again, often with a sense of foreboding. Later there is a haunting moment where a solo violin brings a folksy tune over a steady orchestral layer, taken up by woodwind. The piano leads a faster passage where the orchestra surges ahead, full of anxiety before arriving at an insistent forward moving passage. Horns come in over the orchestra as the music finds a climax, from which it suddenly falls back. The solo violin appears over a hushed orchestra, with other strings and woodwind soon weaving a very distinctive section before timpani thunder and the decisive coda rams home.

This is a work that is full of incident and colour with some lovely themes, subtly shot through with Hungarian character.

The full title of the Variations, Op. 44 is Eleven Variations for Orchestra on a Simple Theme, 'Temptations' and dates from 1947 to 1948. Begun in Budapest, it is one of the works that Lajtha completed whilst staying in London in 1948 when writing the music for Georg Höllering’s film Murder in the Cathedral, from which the composer drew his material.

Pizzicato basses are soon overlaid by a string theme, interrupted by brass before woodwind bring a lovely theme. The music soon finds a steady tread through which individual instruments appear, rising in passion before finding a more tranquil passage. The music suddenly picks up a fast rhythmic forward movement, dancing through some wonderfully orchestrated passages, through sections of lively, buoyant music as the orchestra darts around, bringing a seamless flow of ideas. There is an especially effective passage for strings with a solo violin, full of passion with moments of constantly shifting development. Later a flute brings a variation over hushed orchestra with a gentle side drum. Brass rise to stride forward before the orchestra continues with the confident, forward striding variation.

There is a moment of gentle luminescence where bells gently sound, over woodwind which the strings take forward. The music soon regains a buoyancy to bounce forward before arriving at a sudden moment of passion, a slow outpouring from the strings which leads into a lovely cor-anglais sequence that is shared by the woodwind. This extended variation for cor-anglais is really very fine. It is taken by the strings as a harp is heard before rising forcefully. Midway there is a fast scurrying string passage, before a small ensemble of strings players weaves a particularly fine variation, full of fine textures and much feeling. The orchestra pics up in a lively variation with brass and drums with an atmospheric little passage flitting by before the music strides ahead with a xylophone appearing, adding to the marching rhythm with anxious woodwind phrases. The music surges with varying ideas before picking up to lead to a terrific, dynamic coda.

Lajtha shows remarkable powers of invention in this constant outpouring of orchestral ideas.

These works have an important place in our understanding of Hungarian music in the early 20th century. Bartok thought highly of him, holding the opinion that, apart from Kodály and Lajtha, Hungary ‘had no valuable composers.’ The Pécs Symphony Orchestra under Nicholas Pasquet provides spirited, idiomatic performances. 

The recordings are a little reverberant but otherwise clear and detailed and there are informative booklet notes.

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