Wednesday, March 01, 2017

László Lajtha Symphony No. 2 a Pre-war Masterpiece

László Lajtha may be the most important Hungarian composer you've never heard of. His fame was on par with his colleagues Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály.

After WWII, he was appointed Director of Music for Hungarian Radio, director of the Museum of Ethnography and director of the Budapest National Conservatory. In the early 1950s, he ran afoul of Hungary's communist regime and virtually ceased to exist. Fortunately, his music did not.

Naxos continues their survey of Lajtha's symphonic output, helping to restore his reputation. Volume 2 features Lajtha's second symphony and Variations for Orchestra.

Symphony No. 2 was completed in 1938 but remained unpublished and unperformed until its premier in 1988 --25 years after the composer's death. The symphony is neo-classical in style, though somewhat brooding (perhaps reacting to the gathering clouds of war). Lajtha's use of the piano in this three-movement work reminded me a little of Martinu's orchestral writing (though not as percussive). Instead, Lajtha uses harmonic motion that creates a sense of urgency and unrest. It's a powerful work, for sure.

The Variations for Orchestra came about from a recommendation. When invited to compose background music for a documentary about Hungary, Béla Bartók suggested Lajtha would be a better choice. The eleven symphonic variations show great imagination. Lajtha's original theme seems to have been influenced by both early Prokofiev and Hungarian folksong.

Nicolás Pasquet leads the Pécs Symphony Orchestra in these expressive performances. Having a Hungarian orchestra perform these works adds a little something, I think, to the music that brings their ethnic origins a little closer to the surface. I'm looking forward to volume 3.

László Lajtha: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 
Symphony No. 2, Op. 27; Variations, Op. 44 
Pécs Symphony Orchestra; Nicolás Pasquet, conductor 
Naxos 8.573644

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