An opportunity to visit the oldest large town in Germany, attractive and historic Cologne, came as most welcome; but to anticipate as a special highlight an all-Rozsa concert seemed as vitally important as any of the other such unique events I have been privileged to attend in recent years. This vibrant German centre, sitting astride the mighty Rhine, has experienced a great economic revival, being home to many young people, plus the huge growth of media companies there: all having shaped the thriving atmosphere of this modern cosmopolitan city. It is now a centre for education and research for both science and arts with many colleges as well as ten television and radio broadcasting stations all based here. The largest of these is the famous WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk), and it was they who had arranged the concert that took place on the 22nd February with their excellent orchestra playing four of Rozsa’s finest works.
No less than Rumon Gamba had been asked to conduct, with the Viola Concerto performed by Lawrence Power, who of course had recorded the work in Bergen five years earlier for the Hyperion label. The inclusion of both these superb musicians was a huge added drawer; each has become a supreme champion of the Rozsa idiom: each has declared a special love for his music. The conductor has already recorded four complete Chandos CDs of Rozsa’s works, both for film and the concert hall (he revealed after the concert that a second volume of film music will hopefully follow); the three other orchestral works performed here have all featured amongst this substantial and important series.
Several of us (Volker and Dorothee Hannemann, Andrew and Peiyuan Knowles, Sheila and myself, with Doug Raynes later on) arrived in Cologne on the Saturday prior to the concert day, and met up at varying times to enjoy walks by the river and around the old town centre, plus a visit to a very lively Bier-Haus where some local delicacies – mainly of the liquid kind – could be experienced. In the evening we all ate a fine supper at our Hotel Mondial, centrally located opposite to the Cathedral and possessing a superior restaurant. The day ended talking about memorable sights and sounds we had experienced already and full of great anticipation for what was to come. A sunny Sunday dawned with plans after breakfast to visit the glorious DOM Cathedral, often described as the most magnificent Gothic edifice in the world.
Its spires dominate the skyline; it is one of Germany’s true architectural glories.
We spent much of the morning taking in these glories, and also sat in on a service being held, which was moving and quite sublime.
Later, we had arranged a get together with a German composer/conductor, Tobias van de Locht that afternoon in the hotel lounge, as he had previously expressed a wish to meet us. He has a great interest in Rozsa’s music and even has in his possession some orchestral parts salvaged from a previous recording. He had often included film excerpts from epics in his concerts, and it was encouraging to meet up with him that afternoon. He was accompanied by harp player, Isabella Marchewka, who had programmed the Suite for Harp (Palmer’s arrangements of early Rozsa piano pieces) in her forthcoming recital on 8th March. By now Hank Verryt had arrived at the hotel with his son Mark, and we all enjoyed some lively discussions, before heading over to the nearby WDR Concert Hall for the main event.
There, soon after arrival, other MRS members and past acquaintances joined us; it was good to see Ralph Erkelenz and Harald Bayer after many years, as well as Udo Heimansberg who co-produced the Rainer Padberg LP back in the ’eighties. It was especially nice to welcome long time, and dedicated member, Joachim Sejans, with whom I had been corresponding for nearly a quarter of a century but had never met before! Some photos were clearly in order, and then it was time to head in to the not large, but impressive concert hall by six o’clock for what proved to be an evening to remember. Promptly on the hour an announcer came on to introduce the concert (this was a radio programme after all), followed by a light-hearted, rather comic fellow who let the audience in on what music was to come, advised about the composer and his works, and slipped in anecdotes about various incidents that happened in Rozsa’s life. Then Maestro Rumon Gamba bounded on stage to much welcoming applause by the quite large audience. He is an impressively demonstrative conductor, but he began the quiet opening to “The Vintner’s Daughter” variations with a hushed sincerity of purpose.
It was adventurous and quite innovative to begin the proceedings with a work that starts so quietly and also ends the same way, but this is no ordinary opus, but one from the years of perhaps Rozsa’s greatest maturity and supreme invention; one which demonstrates many dramatic moods and statements in a favourite form of variation, a form he often used – and did so with much success. Here, the solo horn introduction was haunting and nicely phrased, leading to the familiar variants of what really is a quite lovely melody; in variation six the scintillating scherzo was delightful, and the following March unusually propulsive with Gamba’s thrusting swagger fully the equal of Rozsa’s own old MGM recording. The highly romantic eleventh variation was delivered most attractively by the orchestra, firmly controlled by the conductor, dashingly detailed and genuinely exciting.
The Viola Concerto was then played by a quite youthful Lawrence Power who gave one of the finest performances I have ever heard of Rozsa’s last great masterwork.
It was a rapt, intense reading of the long first movement, almost a deeply reflective meditation punctuated by virtuoso flurries. The uncomplicated scherzo was flitting furiously with some superb playing, and then from deceptively simple beginnings the slow movement grew into an impassioned outpouring, magnificent and so imaginatively realised by the soloist. It acted as a necessary respite before the hair-raising, high drama of the finale, in which Power let loose with genuine dazzle and drive; a relentless showcase brilliantly handled to perfection by this great player.
Huge applause rightly followed with exuberant shouts of Bravo!
After the interval, the spotlight turned to Rozsa’s film music with the suite from the THIEF OF BAGDAD, which made a nice contrast to the concert works; furthermore, this score represents one of his most magical and creative filmic periods, as well as being the one which had inadvertently taken him to Hollywood. Had he not been required to travel to America at that time, and remained in London, one wonders what course his life might have taken; but that – to quote from another Oriental movie he scored soon after – is another story!
This fairy-tale fantasy is full of varied delights, and the enchanting suite (as recorded by Gamba) differs from the original six movement published score by including “The Sultan’s Toys”, sensibly fitted in before the “Flying Horse”, and rescued from the reconstruction made by Christopher Palmer for Bernstein’s mid-seventies LP recording. The happy news here was that the orchestra gave a spirited and sprightly rendition of this highly colourful confection, spurred on – especially astride that flying horse – with lively conducting. This was no better exemplified than in the dramatic “Harbor of Basra” opening (re-titled as an Overture) which sets the scene of a city bustling with excitement, awaiting the arrival of the Grand Vizier, and Gamba made sure all this Oriental splendour was fully realised. Other highlights included a propulsive, chipper “Royal Procession” (here called a Cortege), and the deeply passionate “Love of the Princess” which was delivered with captivating freshness and charm. The giddy festivities abounded in “The Marketplace at Basra”, with the conductor managing to extract plenty of spectacular swagger and pomp, leaving us all baying for more.
The final offering was the original (before revision) Theme, Variations and Finale, arguably the greatest, and most perfect, non-film, orchestral work Rozsa composed. The great Brazilian musician, Heitor Villa-Lobos, once suggested that a truly creative musician is capable of producing, from his own imagination, melodies that are more authentic than folklore itself. This is surely no more evident than the original theme Rozsa composed here and subjected to a wide variety of exquisite variations. To most of us, so long used to the revision he made in 1943, listening to those pre-extracted passages in the Finale came across as wonderful to hear in concert at long last. Of course, these changes had been suggested by no less than Bruno Walter who had already played this version three times in Holland; by then, maybe he felt the time was right for some prudent pruning by the composer. He was probably right in this assessment, but our present conductor gave a consummate rendition of the original brilliantly scored showcase, which served as a thoroughly appropriate crowd-pleaser to end the concert. Suffice it to report that every variation blended perfectly into the next, and Gamba and his fine players gave a dramatic reading of bold contrasts and strong symphonic cohesion. This fine orchestra may not be world-beaters, but they responded to their imported conductor’s illuminating direction with zest and complete commitment.
A standing ovation greeted them all, and the Maestro had to return back on stage many times. It had been a complete success, and several of us managed to meet both soloist and conductor afterwards to make sure they knew just how much we had all enjoyed it. Rumon Gamba admitted how much he liked performing Rozsa’s music and looked forward to doing so again very soon. I praised Lawrence Power for having taken up the Concerto (unlike its dedicatee) and been playing it so beautifully, and as consistently as he had; he responded by confirming his huge liking for the work and been surprised at Zukerman’s lack of interest, adding he though it to have been expertly written. We returned to the hotel where a long table had been reserved for drinks and dinner, and you can be sure the many and varied subjects of discussion centred around the evening’s entertainment, which for some had actually been the first ever Rozsa concert they had attended. Some did express a slight disappointment that more film music had not been included, others that Gamba had not scheduled an encore. But the over-riding agreement that a truly great event had occurred that night in Cologne was uppermost, and we all genuinely hoped another might follow: (who knows, maybe at that time in a Czech city...?)
Virgil once wrote, “Let us sing on our journey as far as we go; the way will be less tedious”, (Eclogues, 37 B.C). I think most of us were singing – perhaps even like young Abu back in Bagdad – as we returned home, uplifted and spell-bound after wondrous music-making of the highest calibre, suitably devoured and appreciated to the full. In addition, a very special reunion of like-minded Rozsa enthusiasts had come to pass, the likes of which sadly happens all too infrequently. Never mind, this was one to be recounted by us all with true delight, and spoken about often with considerable, everlasting joy.
By Alan Hamer