Sunday, October 21, 2018

E4TT Surveys Hungarian Composers on Centaur

The E4TT trio of Nanette McGuinness, Dale Tsang, and Anne Lerner-Wright (courtesy of E4TT)

This past April Centaur Records released its second recording of the chamber group that calls itself Ensemble for These Times (E4TT). The group was formed during the 2007–2008 season by soprano Nanette McGuinness, and the instrumentalists are pianist Dale Tsang and cellist Anne Lerner-Wright. The ensemble also has a resident composer, David Garner. The first album, Surviving: Women’s Words, consisted of repertoire prepared under the rubric of the Jewish Music & Poetry Project. The second album, The Hungarians: From Rósza to Justus, was released only in digital form and is available for download (including the booklet of song texts and program notes) from

As might be guessed, this is an album for those interested in learning about unfamiliar composers. The first name in the title is that of Miklos Rósza, best known as a composer of movie scores (and, within that category, as the composer for William Wyler’s Ben-Hur). His film career actually began in Paris in 1934 when he was offered the job of scoring music for a film of Les Misérables. However, that career took off after he moved to London. He worked at London Films, led by fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda. During the filming of The Thief of Bagdad, the Second World War began; and the production transferred to Hollywood, making Rósza another member that thriving scene of European composers living in the great Los Angeles area.

Like other film composers, he tried to keep his hand in concert music between film commitments. Those who championed his music included János Starker (another Hungarian), Jascha Heifetz, and Gregor Piatigorsky. Heifetz and Piatigorsky jointly commissioned him to write a sinfonia concertante for the two of them (his Opus 29); but they never performed the completed version.

I have chosen to focus on Rósza not so much out of a personal preference but because I have acquired a broader sense of his work through my listening experiences. The other composers represented on this recent album are Sándor Vándor, Lajos Delej, and György Justus. Their selections on this album were all “first contact” experiences for me; but none of them really elicited that where-have-you-been-all-my-life response. Some of this may be attributed to the way in which Lerner-Wright and Tsang knew how to tap into the rhetorical side of Rósza’s Opus 8 duo, making it clear that there was more to the music than the composer’s skill in reflecting Hungarian idioms.

The weakest selections tended to be the vocal ones. The sonorities of the final Justus track seemed to have more to do with nostalgia for Vienna, even though the text embodies a longing for Pest. Part of the problem may have come from McGuinness going a bit overboard on the forte passages, but I think it would be fair to that that Justus did not give her much of a platform for her interpretative skills. The four songs by Vándor, on the other hand, were more encapsulated but never really seemed to catch the spirit of the moment.

Nevertheless, these are personal opinions, which should not interfere with others wishing to exercise personal curiosity!

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