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ClassicsOnline Home » ROZSA: Violin Concerto / Sinfonia Concertante
Born in Hungary and trained in Leipzig, Miklós Rózsa moved to America in 1940, winning a name for himself as a master of the Hollywood epic. During his summer breaks in Italy, however, Rózsa was able to devote himself to his concert works. Combining dazzling virtuosity with Hungariantinged lyricism, the Violin Concerto, written for Jascha Heifetz in just six weeks, is one of his finest works, later to be adapted for the Billy Wilder film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The angular Sinfonia Concertante (a double concerto for violin and cello) was written originally alongside the score of Ben-Hur. It, too, is rich in reminders of the composer’s Hungarian origins.
By Susan Pierotti
By Derek Warby
Like several other composers from central Europe who left a troubled continent in the 1930s, the Hungarian Miklós Rózsa turned to writing music for films to make a living in his adopted countries. It was Arthur Honegger who suggested to Rózsa that he consider this path when the Hungarian arrived in Paris in 1931. From Paris, Rózsa went to London where he wrote his first film score – for compatriot Alexander Korda’s Knight Without Armour in 1936. In 1940 Rózsa was on the move again, accompanying Korda to California, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Rózsa became the most sought after and highly regarded composer in Hollywood and composed more than 100 film scores between 1940 and 1981. Among his most notable films were the Academy Award-winning Spellbound (1945) – which bore the famous Spellbound Concerto – A Double Life (1948) and Ben Hur (1959), as well as others such as The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Ivanhoe (1952), El Cid (1961) and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1981).
Such was Rózsa’s success in Hollywood that he took-off around three months of every year to devote time to his ‘serious’ compositions. As well as other émigré composers, Rózsa rubbed shoulders with the great soloists of the time such as Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky. Rózsa approached Heifetz about writing a violin concerto for him, despite Schoenberg’s earlier lack of success in having Heifetz play his new concerto once it was complete. It was written very quickly – in six weeks during 1952. Heifetz obviously liked the new concerto and advised Rózsa on some of the finer points of the solo violin writing. The Concerto was finally performed in Dallas on 15 January 1956, with Heifetz’s famous – and, until the early 1990s, rather lonely – recording following soon afterwards. This is a very welcome issue; especially at Naxos’s budget price. It presents two of Rózsa’s most dramatic and idiomatic concerto works in full-blooded performances and with a recording to match.
The Violin Concerto is cast in three substantial movements very much in the mould of a great Romantic concerto such as the Brahms. Rózsa’s Hungarian roots are discernible throughout and this beautiful, lyrical work reminded me somewhat of a Magyar Barber Violin Concerto, with which it shares a wonderful melodic fluidity and sense of purpose. The soloist here is Anastasia Khitruk, a Russian émigré now living in the USA. She plays no second fiddle to the great Heifetz; hers is a big, warm tone, spot-on intonation and great musicianship. She is more than a match for Rózsa’s big-boned Concerto and its expansive lyrical writing.
The Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Cello followed in 1958, written for again Heifetz and additionally Gregor Piatigorsky. However, it was not greeted with the same enthusiasm by Heifetz as the Violin Concerto, complaining that the cello had more of the limelight than the violin. Rózsa reworked the piece – even composing an entirely new slow movement – but Heifetz never warmed to it and the pair for whom the Sinfonia Concertante was written never performed it. Ironically, they did perform and record the original slow movement (a theme and variations) with Jean Martinon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. One of the things which rankled with Heifetz was that the cello is the first of the soloists to be heard in each of the Sinfonia Concertante’s three movements; albeit in the last movement with only a brief run leading to the solo violinist’s first theme. Even in its revised state one feels the presence of the cello more strongly than that of the violin and one can only wonder about the effect that Piatigorsky would have had on the part. The cellist who joins Anastasia Khitruk here is Andrey Tchekmazov, who doesn’t seem to have any other CDs in the catalogue, despite his obvious mastery of his instrument.
The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under its conductor Dmitry Yablonsky plays excellently throughout and is well served by its Russian sound team. Although recorded in a studio, the sound has an openness and warmth that one would normally expect from a concert hall, allowing Rózsa’s music to resonate as it needs to.
By Robert R. Reilly
Naxos also delivers the famous Violin Concerto by Miklos Roza (1907-1995), written for Jascha Heifetz, in a superb performance by violinist Anastasia Khitruk and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, under Dimitry Yablonsky (8.570350). The quality of these two releases demonstrates that Naxos bargain prices are no obstacle to the very finest quality.
Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995)
Violin Concerto, Op. 24 • Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 29
The music of Miklós Rózsa tempers an arch romanticism with an innate classicism. Perhaps this reflects the fact that he was born in Hungary but trained at the Leipzig Conservatory. It is true both of his film music, where romanticism is rather more to the fore, and his concert works, where form and substance never fail to satisfy.
Rózsa arrived in Hollywood in 1940, after stays in Paris, where Arthur Honegger introduced him to the idea of composing music for films, and London, where he wrote his first film score for Alexander Korda's Knight Without Armour. In California he found a thriving community of musical émigrés, including composers such as Toch, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Korngold, as well as performers such as Piatigorsky and Heifetz. He quickly established himself as one of the most sought-after composers for A-list films, and had so solidified his reputation by 1952 that when he renewed his contract with MGM that year he was able to insist on an unprecedented clause giving him three months off every summer to dedicate exclusively to his concert work. The Violin Concerto, Op. 24, was the first fruit of that happy circumstance.
Rózsa's first violin concerto, written during his student days in Leipzig, was never published, and by the time he was looking forward to his first summer break from MGM, he felt ready to write a mature one. Recalling that many of the great concerti were written with specific artists in mind (such as Brahms for Joachim) he decided to approach Jascha Heifetz. He had met the great violinist only once but knew the virtuoso's accompanist, Emmanuel Bay. Through him he heard back that Heifetz was interested but wanted a sort of trial first movement which they could work through together before he would make a final decision to sponsor the work. Rózsa knew this would be risky (Heifetz had previously approved the opening pages of Schoenberg's concerto only to refuse to play the full work) but decided to go ahead anyway. After leaving Hollywood and settling with his family in a beautiful villa in Rapallo, he began work on that first movement, only to be inspired to complete the entire work in just six weeks. Heifetz liked the piece, and collaborated with the composer on a few changes. Rózsa arranged for a private read-through to check the orchestral balance against the solo part, which resulted in much thinning of the orchestration. Heifetz finally gave the première of the concerto in Dallas on 15 January 1956. The work was enthusiastically received, and Heifetz's RCA recording, made shortly thereafter, stood alone and unchallenged in the catalogue for over forty years.
The first movement begins gently but seems unsettled, oscillating between D major and D minor, and between duple and triple metre. The soloist enters immediately with a soaring theme which takes virtuosic flight into the upper register of the instrument; after a short bridge featuring double stops it is taken over briefly by the full orchestra before a more lyrical and less agitated theme appears in a duet between soloist and solo horn. Both themes are extensively explored over a long development section which incorporates an impressive cadenza for the soloist.
The lyrical second movement, one of many Hungarian-tinged nocturnes in Rózsa's output, begins with a theme which incorporates a very gypsy-like "Scottish snap" rhythm. It is succeeded by a simpler motif sustained by a rocking accompaniment in clarinets (making use of the same "Scottish snap") and an echo of the first theme in the oboe.
Unlike the first two movements, the finale opens with a long orchestral passage. The soloist enters with a terse, argumentative motive that soon expands into a playful theme, only to be quickly succeeded by another. These two ideas are developed amidst great rhythmic activity until a more lyrical contrasting subject provides a short-lived moment of calm. The full orchestra soon regains control, however, and when the soloist reenters the fray there is no stopping the wild rhythmic ride which propels the work to its dizzyingly virtuosic conclusion.
A number of years after its composition for the concert hall, Rózsa's concerto would find itself as the basis for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). was directed by Rózsa's friend and frequent collaborator, director Billy Wilder, who suggested that since the central character was an amateur violinist, the composer might raid the concerto for some of the film's themes. The lyrical subject of the second movement was transformed into the film's "love" theme, and the tempestuous opening of the finale served as a theme for the Loch Ness monster.
Rózsa's experience with Heifetz was considerably less happy when he came to write the Sinfonia Concertante, Op. 29. The composer was first approached by his long-time friend, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, with the notion of writing a double concerto for himself and Heifetz. Rózsa was excited by the prospect, and in the summer of 1958 he went off to his beloved Rapallo and finished the work in just three months. But when he showed the draft to the soloists back in Hollywood, Heifetz was dissatisfied; the violinist complained that the violin and cello parts were unequal, with the cello having the more featured rôle. Rózsa tried to address these concerns, making the work longer as a result and even composing an entirely new second movement. Ultimately, Heifetz did not like the new movement but agreed to perform the original one (a theme and variations) with a reduced chamber orchestra accompaniment which the composer reluctantly supplied. Heifetz and Piatigorsky even recorded this segment of the concerto, but it was the only part of it they ever played. The entire work eventually had its première in Chicago under the baton of Jean Martinon; it was deemed over-long by the critics and the frustrated composer agreed, subjecting it to numerous cuts before it reached its final published form.
The cellist gets things underway immediately in the first movement with a muscular theme that is soon echoed by the violinist. Gently rocking thirds in the clarinets herald the second theme, this time played first by the violinist. The ensuing development section subjects both themes to a thorough working-out, culminating in a double cadenza that builds to a fiery climax before subsiding and yielding to the second theme which begins the recapitulation.
The theme of the second movement is introduced by the cellist (a source of irritation for Heifetz) and then subjected to a series of five variations, some lyrical and some playful. The movement ends with a moment of exquisite calm, the mood of which is immediately dispelled by the long, rhythmically complex orchestral introduction to the last movement. The soloists enter with a vigorous Hungarian folk-dance, against which Rózsa juxtaposes a more lyrical, haunting second subject. The development includes another double cadenza (considerably shortened by Rózsa after the première) before the inexorable drive to the final Vivace, volatile and breathless.
Frank K. DeWald
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ROZSA: Violin Concerto / Sinfonia Concertante