Last Dec. 9, in a review of the Hungaroton record of Laszio Lajtha's String Quartet No. 10 and Sinfonietta, it was suggested that those works "could inspire a healthy curiosity about Lajtha's other compositions."
A month later Istvan Csicsery-Ronay of Arlington wrote to call my attention to a recording of the Hungarian composer's Symphonies Nos. 4 and 9, from the same source. That record Hungaroton LPX-11564) has come to hand now, and these two works make an even stronger impression. Anyone hearing them must wonder why they haven't been taken up by American ochestras.
Actually, we don't know any Hungarian symphonies except the "Dante" and "Faust" symphonies of Liszt. Bartok's Kossuth Symphony, really a sort of tone poem written early in his life, is never played here (or anywhere outside Hungary), and neither is Kodaly's solitary essay in this form, which came rather late in his life (composed as a memorial to Toscanini) and is perhaps not one of his more significant works. Lajtha's seriousnes as a symphonist seems somehow mystically validated even by the number of symphonies he produced, the once-traditional nine.
There is nothing traditional about the music itself, though. The fourth Symphony, Op. 52, was composed in 1951 and first performed a few months after Lajtha's death in 1963. Both works, brilliantly and, one assumes, authoritatively, performed by the Hungarian State Orchestra under Janos Ferencsik, make the most immediate impact with their vivid colors and their strong, contrasting rhythms.
It is easy enough to try to describe unknown music in terms of its resemblance to other music. In the opening movement of the "Spring" Symphony the animated string figures recall the lightness of Dag Wiren's famous little Serenade and the earthy flow of the Bartok Divertimento, while the golenspiel and triangle and the piquant interjections of the trumpet and clarinet suggest parallels with Prokofiev's ingratiating Symphony No. 7, produced at about the same time as this work. Much of the coloring echoes Debussy, and the rhythmic accents project the identifiably Magyar flavor familiar to us from such folk-inflected works as Kodaly's "Dances of Galanta" and Bartok's "Dance Suite." In the finale a bassoon figure may remind us of Host, and even the principal theme, carried by the strings, is similar to "The Dargason" as quoted in both his "St. Paul's Suite" and the second of his two suites for band.
Despite these numerous similarites, however, the overrriding impression is one of great freshness and vitality, of a style as original and personal as it is study and direct.
Peter Varnai's annotation advises that the Fourth Symphony was written when Lajtha was living "in complete seclusion." It is hard to believe so agreeable and outgoing a work could have been produced by a recluse; its sunny communicativeness suggests a background of cheery conviviality. The Ninth, however, is a different sort of work: darker, more intense and dramatic -- a reluctant valediction, one might infer, from a man who was passionately fond of life.
In the Ninth the specifically Hungarian coloring is less apparent. While the frame is a contemporary one -- conspicuously so in the writing for percussion and saxophone -- the themes are molded after Gregorian models. The slow movement (both the Fourth and the Ninth are three-movement works) is especially affecting in its lyricism, with some eerie wind-machine effects for the strings and isolated irruptions to preserve the link with the more impassioned outer movements.