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CD Review

Miklós Rózsa

  • Violin Concerto, Op. 24
  • Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Cello & Orchestra, Op. 29
Anastasia Khitruk, violin
Andrey Tchekmazov, cello
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
Naxos 8.570350 2007 65:40
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Two def jams in phat performances, as the kids used to say.

Like many others, I first made the acquaintance of Miklós Rózsa's violin concerto through the Heifetz LP on RCA. Tailored for Heifetz's playing, the concerto both brooded and threw off virtuoso sparks. For many years, you could get only that recording, even into the CD era. Of course, Heifetz was to the violin as Horowitz was to the piano, so you didn't "make do" with an inferior performance – as it happens, one of Heifetz's best. I'd suspect that Heifetz is still at least second in line, even at this late date, for you now have your pick of recordings (although, ironically, not Heifetz's). Igor Gruppman solos with James Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony on Koch, Robert McDuffie with Yoel Levi and Atlanta on Telarc, and Khitruk with Yablonsky leading the Russian Philharmonic on Naxos. I've heard all of these.

I gave a copy of the Heifetz as a present to my father, an amateur violinist and drummer (there's a combination!). He immediately wanted to know who played the violin. "He's as good as Heifetz," he said. "I should hope so," I replied. But he was just as enthusiastic about the concerto itself. His three favorite concertos are the Beethoven, the Brahms, and the Tchaikovsky, probably in that order. I mention this because it seems to me that, however short (if at all) you believe this concerto to fall from those three masterpieces, it nevertheless comes across as taking something from them all: the emotional directness of the Beethoven, the architectural smarts of the Brahms, the color of the Tchaikovsky. I consider it one of my favorite concerti. I may respect and even enjoy Bartók's Second Violin Concerto, but I love the Rózsa, simply because Rózsa fearlessly goes right to edge of bathos in the service of moving the listener, but he never steps over.

The concerto follows a conventional general path: an argument-bearing first movement, a singing second, and a rapid-fire finale. The finale, fine in itself, seems a bit disconnected from the other two movements, simply because they emphasize song and the finale emphasizes rhythm. The concerto throws off plenty of drama, especially in the first movement where a flowing 3/4 theme contrasts with one in a slightly hectic 6/8. After the cadenza, placed almost midway through the development, the themes switch rhythmic milieus. The theme in 3/4 acquires the character of the 6/8 and vice versa. The emotional wallop and the free, unforced singing quality of the concerto probably strikes most listeners first, but Rózsa has put in plenty of headwork as well. The entire first movement grows out of the opening strain, and gestures from it occur into the slow second movement as well, much in the manner of Tchaikovsky's inter-movement variants. One doesn't find inexorable Beethovenian logic but rather a bunch of half-familiar reminiscences. You're not, in Roland Wiley's phrase, quite sure whether you've "heard that song before." In the same way, some of the slow-movement ideas find their way into the virtuosic finale, this time ginned up and dancing wildly. This score brilliantly meets expectations of what a concerto "should" be.

The Sinfonia Concertante will probably never score a success as great as the Violin Concerto, a vehicle that simply exudes "star" quality. The themes are less lyrical and more angular, less folky more "modern." Nevertheless, the Sinfonia has a greater edge and a greater concern for structure, which may arise from trying to balance the two solo parts. According to Rózsa's autobiography, A Double Life, both Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, the intended soloists, complained that their parts weren't prominent enough whenever Rózsa tried to showcase momentarily one or the other. After the première, Rózsa tightened things up. It turns out that the two stars recorded only the second movement – a theme and variations, a form the composer favored – in a "chamber" orchestration they demanded Rózsa provide. For many years, you could get only this recorded version of the work. Presently, you have a choice of the score Rózsa intended as well as a DVD of the "chamber" second movement with Gidon Kremer.

The two outer movements set up in roughly the same way – as a clash between a fierce theme and a song-like one. In general, the themes exhibit greater complexity than those of the Violin Concerto without sacrificing much in the way of expression. Consequently, the Sinfonia interests me more. The double cadenza of the first movement caught me especially. Frankly, through Rózsa's ingenious and idiomatic use of multi-stopping, it sounds like a string quartet movement, with ripieno-vs.-concertato contrasts. The second movement (my favorite, as it happens) is, as I said before, a theme and variations. The theme sings in a very folk-Hungarian way, although I believe the tune originates with Rózsa. Five variations follow the theme, and they range from lyrical and whimsical to sober and fierce, ending in pure serenity. Not only has Rózsa beautifully shaped each variation, he's provided a marvelous overall rhetorical structure for the movement. After an aggressively Modern start, the finale more or less settles into a Hungarian rondo for a headlong sprint to the finish.

In the Violin Concerto, Gruppman and Sedares on Koch do okay. I've always liked McDuffie, but as good as he is, Yoel Levi lets him down with a blah, spongy accompaniment. From the point of view of a whole performance, Khitruk and Yablonsky outshine them both. I still love the Heifetz, and I kind of miss the gravity of his opening strain, but Khitruk gives him a run for his money, and her tone is brighter. As far as I can tell (I don't play a stringed instrument), I find her technically up to Heifetz and her musicianship superb. As for the Sinfonia Concertante, I haven't heard the other two recordings available (on AS&V and CPO). I have few hopes for Barry Wordsworth on AS&V, however, based on his other recordings I've listened to. Werner Andreas Albert seems to me at least capable. However, I do think the Naxos team's account quite fine, and on a bargain label, yet. This CD may well turn up as one of my favorites of the year.

Copyright © 2010, Steve Schwartz.