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László LAJTHA (1892-1963)
Symphony No.8 , Op.66 [38.32]
Symphony No.9, Op.67 [26.25]
Pécs Symphony Orchestra/Nicolás Pasquet
rec. Ferenc Liszt Concert Hall, Pécs, Hungary, October 1996
NAXOS 8.573648 [64.57]

Re-reading my reviews of some of the earlier symphonies in this cycle (symphony 1 ~ symphony 2 ~ symphonies 3 & 4) I see that, whilst I felt there was an individual voice here (and I started out hopeful that something interesting might emerge as the cycle continued) my later impressions were of a composer whose symphonic credentials were somewhat limited. Moreover, there was no real evidence of development as with, for example, Sibelius. I was therefore interested to have the opportunity to review this disc of the last two symphonies to see if my earlier impressions were correct.

The Eighth Symphony dates from 1959, three years after the Hungarian revolution had been crushed by Soviet tanks. The booklet notes draw attention to an interesting letter from Lajtha’s estate, written by the composer’s wife to his Parisian publisher, Claude Leduc, shortly before the French premiere of the symphony in 1961. (Lajtha would be unable to attend, having had his passport confiscated by the Hungarian communist authorities, and was away on a folk-song collecting trip.) The letter points out that the symphony “progresses from light towards darkness” and it is fairly evident that the dark elements were intended to reflect the composer’s feelings about the aftermath of the failed revolution. On the other hand the notes also quote the critic Claude Rostand who, writing about the 1961 French premiere of the symphony, said that the work was “ of the most beautiful musical creations to have reached us from the East for many years”. It is quite difficult to reconcile these two views and I suspect that Rostand’s words primarily related to the first movement of the work.

The first movement (Allégre et léger – the language reflecting the French avoidance of Italian musical terms) starts with a lugubrious bassoon solo, followed by a woodwind display that recalls the Bartok of the Concerto for Orchestra. This rather degenerates into Lajtha’s less serious vein of inspiration but the movement belongs to the woodwind and percussion, who are well spot-lit here in a fine, clear recording that keeps the strings in the background. This is probably just as well because the strings are (as usual in this series) rather ragged in places – if not seriously so. There is a somewhat constipated cello solo towards the end of the movement before the scurrying, ascending strings, accompanied by celesta, bring it to a close.

The second movement (Lent et triste) opens with a bare melody on lower strings and woodwind that is very suggestive of Madame Lajtha’s description of the music depicting “a cloud descending over everything” and there is a vague air of menace throughout – punctuated by occasional outbursts from trumpets and timpani. This sounds like film music to accompany a fantasy subterranean world, with bare unison strings evoking shades of the slow movement of Bax’s First Symphony.

The third movement (Trés agité et toujours angoissé) opens with a beating drum, accompanied by cymbals and tubular bells. According to the many quotations from the afore-mentioned letter, the music is, at times, “grotesque and nightmarish”. Quiet interludes are “spine-chilling and suggest utter bleakness” - occasionally punctuated by outbursts from the brass or a squealing oboe. Bleary, boozy brass interjections alternate with episodes for strings, flute and harp before a final agitated section, with side-drum interjections, gives rise to a lower string melody and bell chimes that end the movement with “no return, no consolation”. I’m afraid that I found it all rather episodic, lacking any guiding theme and devoid of real coherence.

Unusually, Lajtha added a fourth movement to the work and it does rather sound tacked on, since the symphony could perfectly well have finished at the end of the third movement. This fourth movement (Violente et tourmenté) is probably the one that is most driven by ideas associated with the failed revolution. We start with a painful march-like theme for full orchestra which alternates with a gentler woodwind melody. There are big themes for strings and brass that subside to a solo violin section (a rather sugary affair in the hands of the orchestral leader) before the movement works itself into “a veritable dance of death” in brass and percussion outbursts. I have my reservations about the Pécs Symphony Orchestra, but it has to be said that the playing in this movement is superb and compelling – which is more than I feel can be said for the music. Overall, this work does nothing to change my earlier impressions. What, then, of the Ninth Symphony?

Yes, Lajtha was yet another composer who managed to complete a cycle of nine symphonies. Actually, this idea of nine symphonies being some kind of a limit for many composers after Beethoven does not stand up to much scrutiny. The point is, however, that a wide perception of Lajtha’s final symphony being composed “under the shadow of death” was far from the truth. In fact, Lajtha’s creative powers were very much intact immediately before he was unexpectedly struck down with a heart attack at the age of 71. As the notes state: “The Ninth Symphony begins in an unmistakably serious vein and echoes what he [the composer] perceived as Hungary’s tragic fate as dealt by the 20th Century. Nonetheless, it is also characterised by a will to live and a form of religious elevation”. There are the usual (for Lajtha) three movements – here in a fast, slow, fast layout.

The first movement has no marking but is described on the CD case as Vite. It begins with a painful melody for full orchestra that is contrasted with a strangely ‘resigned’ section. The notes refer to the “experimental” character of the percussion writing but it hardly sounds experimental to me - in fact there are plenty more suggestions of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra here. The movement proceeds via several sections, including one for viola solo with brass interjections, one for lower harp, timpani and lower strings (tremolo) and one very loud section punctuated with percussion, before finishing suddenly. I found it noisy, episodic and not really coherently integrated.

The second movement Lento (Italian amongst the French?) provides an ethereal theme, again with shades of Bax, punctuated by crude and intrusive outbursts. As in the Eighth Symphony, the woodwind is very forwardly balanced with the strings confined to the background. The music meanders to an uneventful close with suggestions of Charles Ives (‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’).

The last movement starts as a perpetuum mobile for strings. This could have been a showpiece but, unfortunately, Pasquet reins his forces back here and the end result hardly sounds like its Vite designation - at least to start with. It is all very Hungarian and, again, there are suggestions of the aforementioned Bartok work, with the development being taken up by ever-larger groups of instruments. In fairness, the performance develops some momentum – possibly justifying the slow start – leading up to a strenuous and inevitable-sounding coda.

Unlike the rather gushing booklet note writer, I cannot find anything remotely comparable with Beethoven’s Ninth in this work. For me, in the final analysis, the music lives down to my original perceptions. There is no real evidence of real symphonic development having happened either within or through this cycle. All that said, however, this latest instalment is – perhaps – the best recorded of the cycle that I have heard - in spite of the balance favouring the woodwind slightly too much. Performances, bearing in mind the few caveats set out above, are pretty strong and eminently at the service of the music. I am glad to have had the opportunity to get to know this composer but I can’t help feeling that his music will continue to languish on the sidelines. If you feel like taking the plunge – and bearing in mind the lack of competition – this release can be given the usual qualified welcome.

Bob Stevenson
Previous review: Rob Barnett



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