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CD of the Week – Miklós Rózsa

Miklós Rózsa: Violin Concerto
Chandos

A Hungarian, penniless in 1930s Paris, Rózsa took a tip from the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger to try his hand at film. He called his compatriot Alexander Korda, who had a studio outside London and got started composing a routine epic, Knight Without Armour.

When war broke out in 1939 Korda moved The Thief of Baghdad to Hollywood and took Rozsa along to finish the score. It was the composer’s gateway to heaven. Over the next four decades, Rósza scored 90 movies, including Spellbound, Ben Hur and Julius Caesar. With Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Waxman, he defined the orchestral language of film.

Like Korngold, however, he craved respectability and continued to write concert works, often reusing themes from his movies. Like Korngold, he composed a concerto for Jascha Heifetz that the great violinist adored and the critics uniformly deplored. Both are fine works, expertly wrought and easy on the ear. But while the Korngold concerto has soared with half a dozen recordings over the past couple of years, Rózsa’s has remained obscure. It is an original work, untouched by Hollywood (though Billy Wilder later asked Rozsa to work it into the soundtrack of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes).

This new interpretation by the young British violinist Jennifer Pike is the most apeealing I have heard since Heifetz. Pike is terrific with the opening movement fireworks and tender in the gorgeous Lento movement. The furious Hungarian rhythms of the finale belong to Bartok, whom Rózsa knew well. At times, the concerto feels like the work of an equal master.

Rumon Gamba conducts the BBC Philharmonic in exemplary Chandos sound. The filler pieces are Rózsa’s neo-classical Concerto for string orchestra and an earthier Theme, Variations and Finale. Enjoyable stuff, can’t think why it doesn’t get played more.

Symphonic CDs

Scriabin: Symphonic works
Melodiya

The Russian composer has fallen so far out of fashion that to hear his music is like revisiting the old Soviet Union. These 1960s recordings, conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov, are vividly atmospheric, expertly played, in pellucid sound – an almost-guilty pleasure.

Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 1-3
LSO Live

Once you suspend scepticism at the naivety, there is much pleasure to be had in Tchaik’s Winter Daydreams and the Little Russian and Polish symphonies. The LSO are on cracking form, with shimmering woodwind solos shaped by Valery Gergiev’s flutter fingers and some sumptuous ppps. This may be the most tempting interpretation since Karajan’s blue-box set of the 1970s… now, there’s a vanished world.

Rachmaninov 2nd
ICA Classics/EMI

The big romantic surges at the start of the first and third movements need taut baton control. Evgeny Svetlanov is exemplary with the Philharmonia in a live 1993 recording. Vasily Petrenko is a little more relaxed with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic but the outcome, far from indulgent, is more likeable. The big clarinet solo on both CDs is sensational. Try both.

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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.

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