László Lajtha Series Starts Strong

László Lajtha, along with colleagues Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály collected folk music in his native Hungary. Their aim was to not only preserve their cultural heritage but incorporate it into their own music. Lajtha may be the least famous of the three, but his music can be just as rewarding to listen to.

Lajtha retained a neo-classic style throughout his career. His 1933 Suite for Orchestra is an intriguing mixture of lush harmonies, restless syncopations and sometimes spiky melodies. The suite is comprised of music from his ballet Lysistrata. Dynamic and dramatic contrasts abound in the score. It’s a great opener — I’m surprised the Suite isn’t regularly programmed by orchestras.

The 1941 In memoriam was written to honor the victims of the Second World War. While it has a more somber cast than the Suite, the work effectively conveys the complexity of emotion war and loss can bring. There are quiet moments for contemplation and heavily chromatic passages that suggest anxiety and uncertainty. And throughout there’s a slow, inexorable pulse that, like an army, keeps moving forward until, at the climax, it fades off into the distance.

The first of Lajtha’s nine symphonies was completed in 1936. To my ears, it has more in common with Martinu’s music than it does with Bartók’s or Kodály’s. There is similar syncopation that gives the themes a dancing quality, and Lajtha’s use of the harp to punctuate parallels Martinu’s use of the piano for the same purpose.

The influence of folk music is closer to the surface of this work. The harmonies have a modal sound to them, and the melodic turns — especially in some of the fast passages — sound very close to Hungarian folk dances. Lajtha studied with Vincent d’Indy, and to my ears, his influence can be heard in Lajtha’s orchestrations.

László Lajtha ran afoul of Hungary’s communist regime in 1956, and his music ceased to be performed. Recordings such as this should help rectify this wrong. In his native land, Lajtha is considered one Hungary’s most important composers. With this release, it’s easy to hear why.

László Lajtha: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1
Symphony No. 1; Suite pour orchestra; In memoriam
Pécs Symphony Orchestra; Nicolás Pasquet, conductor
Naxos 8.573643

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