Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995) was a Jewish Hungarian composer who relocated to the USA in 1940, and ended up in Hollywood as one of the major writers of film scores. He was especially known for his work on vast spectaculars such as King of Kings, El Cid and Quo Vadis: “sword and sandal” epics as they were known, and less so for his concert music, although he kept writing for the concert hall throughout his life. 

Nowadays, as those films recede into the mists of cinema history, Rózsa’s orchestral compositions and concertos are keeping his name alive. His string concertos, particularly those for violin and cello, have been recorded several times, most recently by Baiba Skride and Raphael Wallfisch respectively.

Although Rózsa studied in Leipzig as a young man, rather than Budapest, he used Hungarian folk rhythms and tunes in his early works, and that style often creeps into his mature music. It’s most notable in this program in the five-movement Hungarian Serenade, Op. 25, first written in 1932 but revised in 1946.

The movement titles indicate the divertimento nature of the work: March, Serenata, Scherzo, Notturno, and Danza. The third and fifth movements sound like pure Bartók, and the whole work displays Rózsa’s deft orchestration, which is colourful, clear and well balanced. The opening bassoon tune of the March, reminiscent of Kódaly, reveals the composer’s witty side; it is delightfully played here, while the lyrical sections of the Serenata and Notturno are sensitively done.

Each of these enjoyable pieces dates from the composer’s years in America (or at least his final revisions do). Though light, the music is far from trivial and has integrity. The Overture to a Symphony Concert begins with a two-trumpet fanfare, like something Rózsa might have written for the arrival of Julius Caesar in a movie, but soon switches into a bustling allegro energetico.

Appropriately, Bühl and his Rhineland orchestra attack the rhythms energetically – not only here, but throughout – and while the orchestral ensemble is tight, there is also a slightly rough edge to their sound that emphasises the Hungarian folk influence whenever it appears. This edge helps to make the three-movement Tripartita of 1972 sound tough and modernist, although in its finale we return to the dance-based style of earlier works. 

The pieces are played and conducted with gusto in this release, but stiff competition exists from a Chandos disc issued in 2008, the first in a series of Rózsa’s orchestral works, with Rumon Gamba conducting the BBC Philharmonic. Gamba’s renditions are equally lively but more polished, and Chandos’s recorded sound is preferable to Capriccio’s, which tends toward boxiness in the bass.

Moreover, Gamba’s program adds another early work, the 20-minute Three Hungarian Sketches (1938, revised 1958), so it is better value for money. Both are worth having, but if it is a choice I would go for Gamba. In fact, I recommend his whole series, which also contains a terrific performance of Rózsa’s Violin Concerto from Jennifer Pike.

Listen on Apple Music

Composer: Rózsa
Works: Overture to a Symphony Concert, Hungarian Serenade, Partita.
Performer:  Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Gregor Bühl
Label: CAPRICCIO C5514

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