Despite some very important commissions toward the end of his life, Albert Roussel remained, long after his death, a composer better known by his name than by his music, at least outside his own country. It may be hard to believe now, but there were several years in the 1950s and 1960s during which his name was not to be found in our domestic record catalogues. (Roussel's representation in the current Schwann is by no means all it ought to be; there is a bit more, fortunately, and all of it of prime importance, available from the Musical Heritage Society.)
In the case of the Hungarian composer Laszlo Lajtha, not only his music but his name as well may be simply unknown to most Americans. The one disc by which Lajtha was represented in Schwann -- a coupling of his "Pictures From Vas" and "Pictures From Sopron" for chamber orchestra, on the Mace label -- disappeared seven or eight years ago, after very brief currency and limited circulation. I never saw this record myself, and do not recall seeing it reviewed, either.
The most apparent reason for the neglect suffered by both of these composers is the same in both cases: Each was caught between a pair of giants in his own country. It was Roussel's fate to be born midway between the births of Debussy and Ravel, and to be a late starter as well; he was just reaching his stride when he turned 60, at a time when economic and political factors made the exporting of music by little-known composers an unlikely venture (though he did get the Boston Symphony commission for his Third Symphony in 1930). Lajtha (1892-1963) was a decade younger than his illustrous compatriots Bartok and Kodaly; he was 35 when he began composing in earnest -- at the same time Roussel was completing his sixth decade.
On a new Hungaroton import (SLPX-12018) we have an opportunity to hear two of Lajtha's compositions, both superbly performed and handsomely recorded: the Sinfonietta for string orchestra, Op. 43, composed in 1946, and the String Quartet No. 10, Op. 58, produced seven years later. The Sinfonietta is played by the Hungarian Chamber Orchestra under Vilmos Tatrai, the Quartet by the Tatrai Quartet.
Like Bartok and Kodaly, Lajtha collected Hungarian folk music and used it in his compositions. Like them also, he acknowledged the influence of Debussy, Ravel and other French composers in the forming of his personal style, in which it made a more pronounced and more lasting impact than in theirs. (Vincnet d'Indy was one of his teachers.)
Both the Hungarian element in the content, and the French, in the form and the delicacy of the scoring, are evident in these two works, each of which is cast in three movements. It may be worth noting that while the Quartet is based on Transylvanian dance tunes and in fact bears the subtitle "Transylvanian Suite," the tempo markings for this work are given in French and the final movement may suggest certain parallels in specific works of Ravel (the Quartet in F and "Le Tombeau de Couperin") despite the unmistakable Central European accent.
Roussel finally made it on the international circuit, and now it may be time to give some attention to his Hungarian counterpart. The music on this record is accessible, even ingratiating, and of the most solid substance. It could well inspire a healthy curiosity about Lajtha's other compositions -- nine sysmphonies, a ballet ("Lysistrata"), and a good deal of chamber music in addition to all those quartets. In the meantime, these two works are well worth attention in their own right, and they could not be in better hands.