Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Theme and Variations for Violin, Cello and Orchestra
Review By Joe Milicia
CD Number: Telarc CD-80518
Miklós Rózsa remains better known as a composer of film scores than of concert music. But the creator of soundtracks for Spellbound, A Double Life and Ben-Hur — to name only the movies for which he won Oscars — gave opus numbers to 45 works (including an unpublished symphony) in the course of a career spanning roughly the late '20s through the '80s. One of his fellow toilers in Hollywood, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, is nowadays moderately well represented on CD and even in the concert hall, especially his Violin Concerto and Symphony, not to mention operatic works, but Rózsa remains marginally known, despite an effort in the 1990s by James Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony to record most of his non-cinematic orchestral works.
An excellent introduction to Rózsa’s music for soloists and orchestra is a 2000 Telarc CD which includes the Violin Concerto of 1953 (written for Jascha Heifetz), the Cello Concerto of 1968 (written for Janos Starker, who played it with Solti and the CSO in '71), and as a bonus, the Theme and Variations for Violin and Cello, a chamber version (two oboes, two horns and strings) of the middle movement of a double concerto, the Sinfonia Concertante, written in 1958 for Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky. It would have been nice to have the whole Sinfonia Concertante, but the CD is almost 72 minutes as is.
The Violin Concerto is unmistakably Hungarian from its first notes, conjuring up scores by Bartok and Kodaly, though with a certain sweetness of sound and Romantic sweep that might remind listeners of Korngold’s 1947 Concerto (also written for Heifetz); I hear fleeting echoes of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto as well. It has the traditional three movements, fast-slow-fast, though the opening Allegro non troppo ma passionato does not seem much faster than the Largo cantabile — I suppose a passionate not-too-allegro isn’t so different from a "singing"/flowing largo. Even the concluding Allegro vivace has some moody interludes, though much of it is spikier and more percussive. The soloist dominates the proceedings throughout — the only orchestral tutti of any length at all is at the beginning of the finale — or rather, the violin rides the crest of a wave of sound, supported by solo woodwinds (clarinets and bassoons featured more than their brighter neighbors) and underlying strings. The largo is particularly rhapsodic, an interweaving of the violin’s long melodic strands with arabesques of the orchestral soloists — but really, this could be said of the entire piece. I wouldn’t claim that Rosza’s concerto is as memorably tuneful as Korngold’s, but it is certainly a gorgeous outpouring of sound.
Robert McDuffie’s rich tone serves the piece extremely well, notably in some dreamy sequences in the upper register during the largo. And he has the vigorous energy to keep things moving through the faster, denser sections. Yoel Levi and the Atlanta Symphony provide a rapturous outpouring to match the soloist’s, and Telarc does its usual outstanding job.
Still, Jascha Heifetz’s original recording of 1956 is still around, and my copy (the RCA Victor Gold Seal CD, issued by BMG, with the gold lettering on the blue banner and the B&W photo) has quite respectable sound — less sumptuous, of course, than Telarc’s but with slightly clearer spotlighting of orchestral soloists. Heifetz has an edgier sound — no surprise here — that cuts through the orchestral textures in a refreshing way, and he and the Dallas Symphony with Walter Hendl are strikingly brisker in tempos: their performance comes in at 26’48" vs. McDuffie/Levi’s near-31 minutes. It’s not simply faster — it’s more propulsive, less tending to luxuriate in sheer sound. Heifetz and Hendl always seem to be going somewhere, and some moments in the first movement have the intensity of the hard-driving music Rosza wrote for crime dramas in the 1940s. McDuffie certainly never snarls, but Heifetz comes close, especially in the edgy last pages of the finale. I’m happy to have both performances.
The Heifetz CD too offers the Theme and Variations, here the 1963 premiere recording with himself and Piatigorsky, with a chamber ensemble evidently led by Heifetz. Again the differences between the RCA and Telarc performances are conspicuous: the first more incisively etched, the second more lush. (The timings: 10’50" versus 12’08".) But both are fine performances, and the piece itself is lovely. The theme, slow with the feel of improvisation, is strongly Hungarian in flavor; the seven variations form an arc, with the fourth opening with an impassioned orchestral statement before the soloists take over, and the third and fifth having the most rhythmic flair. For most of the piece, the soloists toss phrases back and forth, though not strictly in canon, while the oboes and horns occasionally assert themselves but otherwise add color as they double the string lines. The sixth variation has the soloists playing in octaves, and the violin gets to restate the theme in the final variation before the cello joins in for the quiet close. McDuffie, Lynn Harrell and Levi achieve great delicacy and beauty in this final passage.
RCA gives us the Korngold Concerto (1953 recording, with Alfred Wallenstein and the L.A. Philharmonic) and a Franz Waxman "Carmen" Fantasy (1946) to round off the program. But Telarc’s offering of Rozsa’s Cello Concerto is certainly substantial, especially with the formidable Lynn Harrell in charge. Though following the same general contours as the Violin Concerto — opening Moderato followed by a Lento con grande espressione and an Allegro vivo — the piece is somewhat more varied in mood within each movement, especially the Moderato, which has both ruminative and propulsive passages, including an ever-speedier coda. The writing displays the cello very effectively (the liner notes mention Janos Starker’s welcomed input during the composition), and orchestral color includes, at moments, a wash of celesta figures as well as many lyrical woodwind solos. Again, Levi and the Atlanta provide committed support.