The career of Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995) is roughly parallel to that of Erich Korngold: after a childhood in Budapest, a German conservatory education (Leipzig), a war-time emigration to Hollywood (in 1940, after some obligatory expatriate time in Paris), and a subsequent erosion of his reputation as a concert composer. Fortunately, his success as a film composer, including the scores for Double Indemnity, Ben-Hur, and many others, allowed him eventually to dictate the terms of his contract with MGM, which stipulated a regular summer vacation period, Mahler-like, for non-film composition. Also like Korngold, much of his music turns out to be well worth the effort currently being expended to resuscitate interest in it. (The only time we have mentioned him at Ionarts was when Jens was impressed by his op. 22 string quartet at a rare performance in 2004.) The 100th anniversary of Miklós Rózsa's birth (April 18, 1907) was this past year.
Miklós Rózsa, Violin Concerto and Sinfonia Concertante, A. Khitruk, A. Tchekmazov, Russian PO (8.570350, released September 25, 2007)
During his first MGM-sponsored summer vacation, Rózsa produced a mature violin concerto, op. 24, after a first attempt that he later considered juvenilia. He composed the work at his villa in Italy, with Jascha Heifetz in mind as soloist. Rózsa eventually worked with the great violinist to revise the concerto, and Heifetz gave the premiere in 1956, later recording the work for RCA (a worthy recording that is still available, now reduced to Naxos prices).
Rózsa recycled some of the violin concerto's themes for his score to Billy Wilder's 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, at the director's suggestion (making the connection that Holmes played the violin).
Rózsa Violin Concerto:
This new recording by violinist Anastasia Khitruk is not the first since Heifetz, but it brings needed attention back to Rózsa's work. Some film executives reportedly found Rózsa's scores too modern (read dissonant) for the movies, and some classical critics may find his concerto too neo-Romantic (he did perhaps favor the Glockenspiel and other chimey instruments too much). The performance is good, but that is competing at the same price as the remastered Heifetz is tough. In the demanding passages of the first and third movements, Khitruk is just not going to measure up to the fireworks of Heifetz, but there is a folky simplicity to her tone in the second movement (the concerto's best) that is pleasing. Dmitry Yablonsky gets equally good playing from the Russian Philharmonic, albeit with a few intonation and balance issues.
Hoping to build on the success of the violin concerto, Rózsa worked with Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, completing the Sinfonia Concertante, op. 29, for them in the summer of 1958. After struggling with revisions, mostly to please the demanding Heifetz, Rózsa had the work premiered with other soloists, to critical failure. Its title alludes to Mozart's famous piece for violin and viola, and the neoclassical adherence to historical models may weigh down the piece too much. (Frank K. DeWald has written that for Rózsa's first major concert appearance as a violinist, at the age of seven, he played -- and was costumed as -- Mozart.) Even in its revised version, it feels long at 33:46, and it does not help that much of the score is derivative of the violin concerto.
The Rózsa violin concerto disc was nominated for a Grammy, and a nice companion for it (or for the Heifetz recording) if you want to discover the work of Miklós Rózsa is this recording of some of the composer's works for violin and piano. A set of variations (op. 4) and a set of peasant songs and dances (op. 5), both from 1929, are based on folk themes that the young composer heard in the Hungarian countryside and notated in his notebook. Award-winning Philippe Quint is a stronger violinist than Anastasia Khitruk, and his 1723 "Ex-Kiesewetter" Strad has something to do with the big-throated tone (and the glassy harmonics) he produces on these folk expansions. Pianist William Wolfram is no slouch either. These bright-eyed works give tribute to the ethnomusicological achievements of Kodály and Bartók, but with the harmonic palette of Ravel. Attention, violinists looking for a lesser-known encore: each of the four peasant songs and dances is a couple minutes long and very appealing.
Miklós Rózsa, Works for Violin, P. Quint, W. Wolfram (8.570190, released September 25, 2007)
The Duo for Violin and Piano (op. 7, 1931) is an early attempt at a sonata in all but name. Although it has some pleasing sections, the work has not made a deep impression in my mind. Quint and his Stradivarius are all alone, in the more satisfying acoustics of a Toronto church (the other tracks were captured in the Glenn Gould Studio at CBC Toronto), for the final work. The Sonata for Violin Solo (op. 40, 1986) is from the final decade of the composer's life and is a work for unaccompanied violin to add to the list of worthy examples. It has a Bartók-like combination of folk sound and dissonance that may be the sort of music that Rózsa kept bottled up in Hollywood. We hope more of that music comes across our desk in the coming years.