About this Recording
8.570350 - ROZSA: Violin Concerto / Sinfonia Concertante

Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995)
Violin Concerto, Op. 24 • Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 29


The music of Miklós Rózsa tempers an arch romanticism with an innate classicism. Perhaps this reflects the fact that he was born in Hungary but trained at the Leipzig Conservatory. It is true both of his film music, where romanticism is rather more to the fore, and his concert works, where form and substance never fail to satisfy.

Rózsa arrived in Hollywood in 1940, after stays in Paris, where Arthur Honegger introduced him to the idea of composing music for films, and London, where he wrote his first film score for Alexander Korda's Knight Without Armour. In California he found a thriving community of musical émigrés, including composers such as Toch, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Korngold, as well as performers such as Piatigorsky and Heifetz. He quickly established himself as one of the most sought-after composers for A-list films, and had so solidified his reputation by 1952 that when he renewed his contract with MGM that year he was able to insist on an unprecedented clause giving him three months off every summer to dedicate exclusively to his concert work. The Violin Concerto, Op. 24, was the first fruit of that happy circumstance.

Rózsa's first violin concerto, written during his student days in Leipzig, was never published, and by the time he was looking forward to his first summer break from MGM, he felt ready to write a mature one. Recalling that many of the great concerti were written with specific artists in mind (such as Brahms for Joachim) he decided to approach Jascha Heifetz. He had met the great violinist only once but knew the virtuoso's accompanist, Emmanuel Bay. Through him he heard back that Heifetz was interested but wanted a sort of trial first movement which they could work through together before he would make a final decision to sponsor the work. Rózsa knew this would be risky (Heifetz had previously approved the opening pages of Schoenberg's concerto only to refuse to play the full work) but decided to go ahead anyway. After leaving Hollywood and settling with his family in a beautiful villa in Rapallo, he began work on that first movement, only to be inspired to complete the entire work in just six weeks. Heifetz liked the piece, and collaborated with the composer on a few changes. Rózsa arranged for a private read-through to check the orchestral balance against the solo part, which resulted in much thinning of the orchestration. Heifetz finally gave the première of the concerto in Dallas on 15 January 1956. The work was enthusiastically received, and Heifetz's RCA recording, made shortly thereafter, stood alone and unchallenged in the catalogue for over forty years.

The first movement begins gently but seems unsettled, oscillating between D major and D minor, and between duple and triple metre. The soloist enters immediately with a soaring theme which takes virtuosic flight into the upper register of the instrument; after a short bridge featuring double stops it is taken over briefly by the full orchestra before a more lyrical and less agitated theme appears in a duet between soloist and solo horn. Both themes are extensively explored over a long development section which incorporates an impressive cadenza for the soloist.

The lyrical second movement, one of many Hungarian-tinged nocturnes in Rózsa's output, begins with a theme which incorporates a very gypsy-like "Scottish snap" rhythm. It is succeeded by a simpler motif sustained by a rocking accompaniment in clarinets (making use of the same "Scottish snap") and an echo of the first theme in the oboe.

Unlike the first two movements, the finale opens with a long orchestral passage. The soloist enters with a terse, argumentative motive that soon expands into a playful theme, only to be quickly succeeded by another. These two ideas are developed amidst great rhythmic activity until a more lyrical contrasting subject provides a short-lived moment of calm. The full orchestra soon regains control, however, and when the soloist reenters the fray there is no stopping the wild rhythmic ride which propels the work to its dizzyingly virtuosic conclusion.

A number of years after its composition for the concert hall, Rózsa's concerto would find itself as the basis for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). was directed by Rózsa's friend and frequent collaborator, director Billy Wilder, who suggested that since the central character was an amateur violinist, the composer might raid the concerto for some of the film's themes. The lyrical subject of the second movement was transformed into the film's "love" theme, and the tempestuous opening of the finale served as a theme for the Loch Ness monster.

Rózsa's experience with Heifetz was considerably less happy when he came to write the Sinfonia Concertante, Op. 29. The composer was first approached by his long-time friend, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, with the notion of writing a double concerto for himself and Heifetz. Rózsa was excited by the prospect, and in the summer of 1958 he went off to his beloved Rapallo and finished the work in just three months. But when he showed the draft to the soloists back in Hollywood, Heifetz was dissatisfied; the violinist complained that the violin and cello parts were unequal, with the cello having the more featured rôle. Rózsa tried to address these concerns, making the work longer as a result and even composing an entirely new second movement. Ultimately, Heifetz did not like the new movement but agreed to perform the original one (a theme and variations) with a reduced chamber orchestra accompaniment which the composer reluctantly supplied. Heifetz and Piatigorsky even recorded this segment of the concerto, but it was the only part of it they ever played. The entire work eventually had its première in Chicago under the baton of Jean Martinon; it was deemed over-long by the critics and the frustrated composer agreed, subjecting it to numerous cuts before it reached its final published form.

The cellist gets things underway immediately in the first movement with a muscular theme that is soon echoed by the violinist. Gently rocking thirds in the clarinets herald the second theme, this time played first by the violinist. The ensuing development section subjects both themes to a thorough working-out, culminating in a double cadenza that builds to a fiery climax before subsiding and yielding to the second theme which begins the recapitulation.

The theme of the second movement is introduced by the cellist (a source of irritation for Heifetz) and then subjected to a series of five variations, some lyrical and some playful. The movement ends with a moment of exquisite calm, the mood of which is immediately dispelled by the long, rhythmically complex orchestral introduction to the last movement. The soloists enter with a vigorous Hungarian folk-dance, against which Rózsa juxtaposes a more lyrical, haunting second subject. The development includes another double cadenza (considerably shortened by Rózsa after the première) before the inexorable drive to the final Vivace, volatile and breathless.

Frank K. DeWald


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