About this Recording
8.573645 - LAJTHA, L.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 3 (Pécs Symphony, Pasquet)

László Lajtha (1892–1963)
Symphony No. 4 ‘Spring’, Op. 52 (1951) • Suite No. 2, Op. 38 (1943) • Symphony No. 3, Op. 45 (1948)


Lázsló Lajtha’s Fourth Symphony numbers among his most popular works. Although the time of composition, the early 1950s, was one of the darkest periods both in Hungarian history and for Lajtha personally (the composer having been deprived of his passport and academic position), the work is full of joie de vivre and charm, and is a blissful antidote to the circumstances surrounding its composition.

Like most Lajtha symphonies, Symphony No. 4 has three movements: two fast ones, Allegro molto and Vivace, flanking an Allegretto middle movement which, despite its brooding, pensive mood, has a subtle, dance-like pulse. The highly inventive musical material contains many Hungarian or quasi-Hungarian tunes and the orchestration is airy and transparent, amply showcasing Lajtha’s exceptional instrumentation skills. Lajtha is often described as a composer who seamlessly melds Hungarian folk music and European art music at the highest level, and this description certainly holds true for the Fourth Symphony. A superb example of this artful musical style can be found in the violin solo during the lyrical closing section of the first movement. The subtitle ‘Spring’ best fits the last movement an uninterrupted, sweeping round-dance brimming with the joy of life in typical 16/8 metre. Lajtha built a sort of stretto or graded acceleration into the movement and towards the end a climax is reached through a reeling and spinning dance scene.

It is illuminating to know that the Communist government, guided by Soviet ideas, received this masterfully written composition most unfavourably. Composer Ferenc Szabó declared at the end of the First Hungarian Music Week in 1951 of Lajtha’s works: “One of the chamber music programmes of the Music Week included the fresh and lively Seventh String Quartet with a Hungarian tone, which could be welcomed as a decisive turn in the oeuvre of Lajtha towards Hungarian folk music and realism, as a serious step towards the denunciation of West European cosmopolitanism and formalism. His Fourth Symphony, however, seems to continue without scruples the undesirable form of composition in an extremely subjective spirit, which it was hoped had been completely banished from Lajtha’s valuable and significant creative art.”

Like so many other Lajtha compositions, the Fourth Symphony was first performed by the noted pupil of the composer János Ferencsik on 15th October 1951 in Budapest, with the Hungarian Philharmonic Orchestra. It was soon heard in Paris, Frankfurt and Hamburg and is among the few Lajtha compositions which were also recorded around that time.

Oddly, there is no sign on the title page of the score of the Second Suite to indicate that it is in fact a ballet suite. The four movements, Vivace, Prestissimo, Molto quieto, and Vivace were originally part of the one-act dance comedy, Le bosquet des quatre Dieux (The Grove of the Four Gods). The score of the original ballet, a satirical dance comedy, was probably lost and no choreography was designed, so it was never performed. Of the composer’s three ballets, only Lysistrata had a few performances at the Opera House of Budapest in 1937. The working piano score, for four hands, is extant, with only the movements combined into a suite being known in orchestrated form. The story on which to base the choreography is known in detail. The libretto was written by József Révay (1881-1970), literary historian and translator, who was deeply interested in antiquity, as was Lajtha. The action takes place in the holy grove on Mount Lycabettus near Athens, in mythological times. It consists of nine scenes.

The plot is set in the grove of four gods where the statues of Zeus and Hermes come to life to seduce two earthly maidens, Chrysilla and Philotis. The statues of the other gods, Aphrodite and Ares, also come to life and disappear in a hiding place for lovers’ trysts. The places of the absent gods are taken by power-thirsty mortal men. The attributes of Zeus are taken on by Cleon, in what is possibly a reference to Hitler and the fascist dictators of the age. Hephaestos, Aphrodite’s cuckolded husband, makes a snare in revenge and entraps the embracing Aphrodite and Ares in the net. Zeus restores divine order, frees the lovers from the trap and recaptures his throne. The grove of the four gods bursts into bloom and a rapturous feast begins.

The four-movement Second Suite was performed in Paris, Budapest, Turin, Munich and Brussels in the composer’s lifetime.

In 1947-48, László Lajtha spent a year in London with his family. He had been invited by the Austrian film director Georg Hoellering to compose music for the film version of T. S. Eliot’s verse play Murder in the Cathedral, the story of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Symphony No. 3 derives from this film music. Other compositions derived from film music include Temptations, Eleven Variations for Orchestra (on a simple theme for the same instrumental ensemble as the Third Symphony), and the Harp Quintet No. 2. It was probably in London that Lajtha was at the apex of his compositional efficiency, as he did not have to take on various assignments to make a living. Although he received promising offers, he did not stay in the British capital when he had completed the work but, fired by patriotism, returned to his native land. Sadly, given the current political situation, it was hardly a surprise that on his return to Hungary Lajtha was harassed, dismissed from his posts and his passport confiscated such after a lengthy sojourn in the West. After this most productive creative period, 1948 thus marked a downward turn in Lajtha’s life.

Now working together with Hoellering for the first time since the 1930s, when he had composed the music for the film Hortobágy, (which elicited sincere praise from critics), Lajtha enjoyed the perfect confidence of both the film director and T. S. Eliot, who told him: “Only your music will make the film complete, it will help much, and it will elevate my words and thoughts.” A letter written by Lajtha to Bence Szabolcsi from London in 1948 says: “I am writing the film music under circumstances that have rarely if ever fallen to the lot of a musician. They do not simply want to have the music composed, but also record it, and the pictures and texts are adjusted to fit with it. I do not compose the background, I do not explain anything by music—Hoellering has comprehended that it just cannot be done and it also a useless exercise or to do so. Nothing restricts me but time.”

The film won two prizes at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, including the Grand Prix. In spite of that, it never won the appreciation of either the public or the critics. It was found dull and protracted and was rarely shown. Yet even the most severe critics acknowledged the value of Lajtha’s music.

It was very important for Lajtha to compose music which did not merely illustrate a film but is self-contained and performable without the accompanying visuals. As a result, the Third Symphony is a captivating composition, even when studied without any knowledge of the film Murder in the Cathedral. It has two movements, Lento, quasi rubato and Allegro molto e agitato. Rather unusually, the first movement begins with the painful tune of a solitary clarinet, the rest of the instruments joining in gradually. The most conspicuous feature of the feverishly passionate second, as well as the closing, movement is an energetic quaver figuration of small tonal range turning around its own axis. Symphony No. 3 was first performed in London in March 1949, by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. In Hungary, it was first performed under the baton of János Ferencsik.

Emőke Solymosi Tari
Edited by Naxos, 2016

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