November 08, 2007


Rózsa: Violin Concerto; Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. Anastasia Khitruk, violin; Andrey Tchekmazov, cello; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos. $8.99.

Rózsa: Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song; Duo for Violin and Piano; North Hungarian Peasant Songs and Dances; Sonata for Violin Solo. Philippe Quint, violin; William Wolfram, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      The name of Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995) is inextricably linked to film music – for which he had such a talent that he was able to negotiate a contract giving him three months a year off, in which to write music for the concert hall. These new CDs show Rózsa in thorough command of the forms of this more-serious music, but generally without the sorts of big ideas that would make his classical music as attractive to concert-hall audiences as his scores for Double Indemnity, Spellbound, The Thief of Baghdad, Ben-Hur and many more films are for moviegoers.

      The works with orchestra are the more interesting ones here. Both have a strong Jascha Heifetz connection. The Violin Concerto was written for him, first performed by him and first recorded by him. The Sinfonia Concertante was intended for Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, but Heifetz was never satisfied with it despite multiple reworkings on Rózsa’s part. It might take a Heifetz to make the Violin Concerto thoroughly engaging: Anastasia Khitruk has plenty of technique, but her performance does not seem entirely facile, as if she is not involved in the music. The work’s opening is searingly Romantic, and the violin plays nearly without stop throughout the first movement, almost as if this is a violin work with orchestra obbligato. The movement meanders pleasantly from theme to theme. The second movement is atmospheric and pleasingly lyrical, but never intense. The finale actually has an orchestral introduction – the only one in the concerto – after which the violin skitters and swoops here and there. This concerto never seems to find an emotional center, but it did find a use in film: excerpts became part of Rózsa’s score for Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

      The Sinfonia Concertante, despite its checkered history, is a more effective work. The cello – played with firm, rich tone by Andrey Tchekmazov – is heard first in the initial movement, after a dramatic opening; then cello and violin interweave, and there are some interesting tutti sections. The orchestra is well handled, and the double cadenza is effective. The cello starts the second movement, a theme and variations, with a long singing phrase, after which the violin enters at a broad pace. The variations alternate lyricism with playfulness and have nice little touches, such as occasional triangle notes; Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra are especially effective here. One particularly well-conceived variation contrasts orchestral outbursts with scurrying themes for the soloists. The finale has rhythmic intensity and plenty of percussion, and sounds like film music even though it isn’t. There are soulful sections among the dramatic ones, and Rózsa’s handling of winds, harp and snare drum keeps matters interesting until the music becomes faster and faster as it rushes to its conclusion.

      Rózsa’s chamber music seems rather thin by comparison, although Philippe Quint and William Wolfram play it quite well. The Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song are rather ordinary, although the second-to-last one and the finale have some intensity. The first movement of the four-movement Duo for Violin and Piano meanders in and out of tonality; the second movement has bounce, with strong chords at the end; the third is gentle, marked Largo doloroso but sounding more tranquillo; and the fourth is bright and lively. The four movements of North Hungarian Peasant Songs and Dances have greater overall vitality. The first is pretty and gently rocking; the second contrasts lighter and stronger sections; the third is heartfelt and songful; and the fourth is very quick and strongly rhythmic, with a contrasting middle section.

      All these chamber pieces are early Rózsa works. The Sonata for Violin Solo is late (1986), written at a time when a degenerative illness kept the composer from creating multi-instrument works and led him to explore solo pieces for flute, clarinet, guitar, oboe, and viola – plus this one for violin. The longest work on this CD, the Sonata for Solo Violin is large-scale, complex and atonal. It engages the listener through sonorities and techniques – such as the first movement’s rapid pitch and rhythm changes, plus unexpected and difficult leaps. The second movement, nearly as long as the first and third put together, is a theme with multifaceted variations, and the finale is intense and sonically varied. In all, though, the work is more impressive than likable, and Rózsa’s chamber pieces in general are likely to be less appealing to a concert audience than his orchestral works – although it is doubtful that any of his concert-hall music will ever reach as large as audience as his film scores did…and still do.

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