About this Recording
8.570925 - ROZSA, M: Viola Concerto / Hungarian Serenade (Karni, Smolij)
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Miklós Rózsa (1907–1995)
Viola Concerto • Hungarian Serenade


Miklós Rózsa was born in Budapest but left Hungary in 1925 to attend the University of Leipzig. After graduation from the Conservatory there he settled briefly in Paris “to begin my life as a Parisian composer”. There Arthur Honegger introduced him to the notion of writing music for films, but when no feature work came his way, he decided to try his luck in London. It was there that he scored his first motion picture, Knight Without Armour, for Sir Alexander Korda in 1937. By 1940 he had become Korda’s “one man music department”, and had finished composing The Thief of Baghdad when he was told he would have to go to California to score a few additional scenes being funded by United Artists. He arrived in Hollywood expecting to stay a month or so; he ended up settling in the film capital for the rest of his life, marrying, raising his family, and dying there 55 years later. During all those years, apart from a brief visit in 1974, Rózsa never set foot in his native land. Still, no matter where he lived or composed, no matter whether he was writing for films or the concert hall, he never lost what conductor John Mauceri called his “Magyar heart”. His music was always readily identifiable as Hungarian, imbued with the spirit of the native music he collected in his youth.

This Hungarian element of his work is reflected, in part, by the titles of many of Rózsa’s concert works. In addition to the Hungarian Serenade included on this disc, there are the Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song, Op. 4, and the North Hungarian Peasant Songs and Dances, Op. 5 (both on Naxos 8.570190), Three Hungarian Sketches, Op. 14, and the Notturno Ungherese, Op. 28. His Overture to a Symphony Concert, Op. 26, was influenced by the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956, and although he never scored a film set in Hungary, a passing reference to a minor Hungarian character inspired the prominent use of a cimbalom in The Power, a 1968 film produced by fellow Hungarian-expatriate George Pal.

Apart from two early concertante works and his unpublished Symphony, Op. 6, the Hungarian Serenade, Op. 25 (originally Op. 10) was Rózsa’s first work for orchestra. While still a student in Leipzig, he had approached the Hungarian composer-conductor Ernő Dohnányi about performing the symphony. The older musician felt it was a good work but, like Bruno Walter before him, pronounced it over-long. He promised, however, to perform a shorter work sometime in the future. He kept that promise in October, 1932, when he conducted the première of the Serenade at the opera house in Budapest. The new work by a relatively unknown composer was initially greeted with polite applause, but it turned into a “thunderous ovation” when the audience noted that Richard Strauss—in town for performances of his Die ägyptische Helena and seated in a box with Dohnányi’s wife—was applauding furiously. As the composer modestly recalled: “Whether he liked my piece or not, I don’t know, but he must have felt that the future of a young composer was in his hands.” When he was introduced to Strauss after the concert, Rózsa said it was “like meeting Beethoven”.

Originally conceived for string orchestra, the Serenade began and ended with a march which faded in at the beginning and faded out at the end, in the tradition of a genuine serenade; Dohnányi, wanting the work to be a popular success, persuaded the young composer to end the work with the lively Danza movement instead. The work was revised several more times until reaching its final form, now designated Hungarian Serenade, Op. 25, in 1952. Each of the single wind instruments is used most effectively in clarifying the rich, contrapuntal nature of Rózsa’s writing, beginning with a jolly solo from the bassoon in the opening Marcia. The rhapsodic second movement Serenata is still for strings only, but flute, oboe and bassoon figure prominently in the jaunty Scherzo (Rózsa also used the two themes from this movement in his Bagatelles, Op. 12, for piano solo, written about the same time as the Serenade). Solo clarinet opens the haunting Notturno movement and Rózsa unleashes the full power of his modest orchestra in the concluding Danza.

The last of Rózsa’s concertos—indeed, his last orchestral work altogether—was the Viola Concerto, Op. 37. Shortly before he died, Rózsa’s good friend Gregor Piatigorsky had spoken highly of a young viola virtuoso, Pinchas Zuckerman. Perhaps in part as a way to honour his late friend, the composer conceived the idea of a viola work to round out his cycle of concertos (which already included works for cello, piano, violin and violin/cello duo—the last two on Naxos 8.570350). Work on the concerto was interrupted to score some of his last films, and the composer complained: “When I came to take it up again somehow the spell was broken”. In spite of this self-deprecating remark, the concerto contains a wealth of ideas (it is the only one of Rózsa’s concertos to have four movements). André Previn, a colleague of Rózsa’s from his Hollywood days, conducted the première, with Zuckerman as soloist, in Pittsburgh in May 1984.

If the Serenade exhibits a tonal spectrum similar to Kodály, then the Viola Concerto calls to mind the darker, more astringent colours of Bartók. The opening movement is brooding and unsettled, its two themes never permitted to soar or admit any light into the proceedings. It inhabits the same bleak sound world which characterized Rózsa’s late film scores, such as Providence and Fedora. The central, agitated cadenza struggles but fails to break free of the ruminative mood. The vigorous and quicksilver Scherzo movement introduces some more folk-like melodic material, but it is soon over and we find ourselves in the midst of Rózsa’s final orchestral nocturne. There is warmth here, if not light, and ardour from soloist and orchestra alike as they develop two passionate themes. A spirited peasant dance takes over in the fourth and final movement, where folk fiddling is transformed into virtuosic display. An oboe tries to introduce a more melodic second subject, but a niggling counterpoint from the viola soloist will not let the lyricism take hold. Those rôles are reversed when the same idea returns, but it is the first theme which propels the final pages to a characteristic bravura finish.

In all his music, from the early chamber works, through his mature orchestral masterpieces and on to his final works for solo instruments, Miklós Rózsa remained spiritually rooted in the native Hungarian soil he physically left far behind as a young man. He himself admitted, “the music of Hungary is stamped indelibly one way or another on virtually every bar I have ever put on paper”.

Frank K. DeWald

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