Nicolas Pasquet: László Lajtha Symphony 8, Pecs Symphony

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László Lajtha - Symphony No. 8 (1959)
Conducted by Nicolas Pasquet with the Pecs Symphony Orchestra.

I. Allegre et leger - 00:00
II. Lent et triste - 9:41
III. Tres agite et toujours angoisse - 17:06
IV. Violent et tourmente - 27:16

Manuel Rosenthal
 Manuel Rosenthal
"One of the most beautiful musical creations to have reached us from the East for many years," wrote the critic, Claude Rostand about Lajtha's Eighth Symphony, after its première in Paris on May sixteenth, 1961, by the Orchestre National in the Théâttre des Champs Elysées, conducted by Manuel Rosenthal.

A letter by Lajtha's wife points out that in contrast to the great majority of symphonies that conclude with a joyous, hymnic finale, this composition progresses from light towards darkness. "There is no happy end. In fact, quite the opposite. No sooner do we sense the light of joy than we plunge into a merciless tragedy of inhumanity." This is a very accurate summary of Lajtha's four movement symphony.

The bright pastel colours of the Allègre et léger first movement, and its piano-pianissimo dynamics, capture the listener's attention from the very opening bar. The prescribed rhythm is unusual: 15/8. The asymmetric pulse goes to increase the feeling that we are not in a world of solid objects. It is as if we were gliding over some imaginary fairy world. It is no accident that Maurice Fleuret singled out the delicacy of the orchestration: the harp, celeste and xylophone receive just as important a role in the magical combination of sounds, as the divided strings or the many secretive string tremolos. The dance-like melody, which is the defining theme of the movement, is first heard in the woodwinds as a bassoon solo. The traditional woodwind section is augmented with a piccolo, alto saxophone, English horn and contrabassoon, which further enrich the soundscape. Precisely because of the melodic role of the woodwind, and to a lesser extent, the brass, striking new sonorities are achieved with the introduction of a solo cello and at the very end of the movement when the first violin takes a leading role. The almost continuous scurrying sonorities are reminiscent of Mendelssohn's fairy music, most especially in the final bar, where the music dies away in the ethereal upper registers.

The second movement begins with a profound, and darkly coloured Lent et triste which, according to the letter, depicts "a cloud descending over everything." Although the basic tone is relaxed and delicate, occasional distant, frightening sounds are heard, thanks to the rich use of percussion and brass instruments. These suggest unambiguously that something unavoidably terrible is approaching. The virtuosic use of string tremolos and the vibrations of split phrases express an inner fear and apprehension. The beautiful violin melody heard at the end of the movement is unable to lighten the deep sorrow of the polyphonically treated melodic material.

The third movement is marked Très agité et toujours angaissé, and by contrast to the previous two movements, is filled with shocking fortes and powerful percussion and brass effects. The quiet interludes though, are spine chilling, and suggest utter bleakness. In connection with this movement, Lajtha's wife refers to "worry and terror", "unimpeded rush", "heart-wrenching screams." The music is at times grotesque and nightmarish. The peal of bells at the end of the movement means the end: after this unreal nightmare, this desperate flight, there is no return, no consolation.

If the symphony had finished at this point, as it might well have done since most of Lajtha's symphonies are cast in three movements, it would have presented us with a shocking experience. But Lajtha adds a fourth movement, which is entitled Violent et tourmenté. "It is a tragedy without consolation" wrote Lajtha's wife, and in her letter, she compares the fourth movement's atmosphere to Dante's Inferno. So from the heaven of the first movement, we finally arrive in Hell: from the ethereal pianissimo of the opening, we progress to heavy, painful fortissimos. After the wailing tutti introduction, the woodwinds intone the melody, reminiscent of the famous Rákóczi melody which was closely associated with the struggle from 1703 to 1711 against the Habsburgs led by Ferenc Rákóczi. The melody accompanied a variety of texts, which were just as applicable to the fate of Hungary in 1956 as they were during the Rácóczi era. Two episodes are wedged into this extraordinary outpouring of pain. In the first, a solo clarinet plays a beautiful melody, to two highly differentiated accompaniments which seem to come from a different, pure world, but in the form of pale fragments of memory. This section creates a strong contrast with the opening and the remaining music. The principal character of the second quieter section is a solo violin. This second interlude brings with it far more pain than does the first. The finale works itself up into a veritable dance of death.