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Édouard LALO (1823-1892)
Violin Concerto, Op.20 (1873) [23:55]
Fantaisie norvégienne (1878) [13:20]
Symphonie espagnole, Op.21 (1874) [31:21]
Jean-Jacques Kantorow (violin)
Granada City Orchestra/Kees Bakels
rec. Granada, Spain, December 2007
BIS BIS-CD-1680 [69:39]
Experience Classicsonline

The disc contains three works by Édouard Lalo for violin and orchestra - all written in the 1870s. Two of them are small and virtually unknown but deserve more prominence. The third is a staple of the romantic repertoire, receiving a fresh interpretation, quite different from what we might be used to.

Lalo did not enjoy much success in his lifetime, although his melodic gift was admired by some of his fellow composers. The works on this disc testify to his talent. The music stores no hidden depths, it is not contrapuntal or forward-looking in any way. Let's be honest, it is also fairly predictable and sweet-toothed. On the good side it is pleasant, melodic, and is a good vehicle for violinists’ virtuosity. In fact, all three pieces were created for the great Sarasate, and he paid back generously by making Lalo's name internationally known. It is nice to have concertos written by a skilled violinist for a great violinist: the composer both can and may express himself as he wants.

The Violin Concerto is best described by the word "sweet". The first movement is by far the longest and stores the main symphonic weight. It has the grace of the Mendelssohn's though is not nearly as memorable. The themes are short, not contrasting and, not surprisingly, resemble those from the first movement of Lalo's Cello Concerto, a deeper and darker work written three years later. The mood is agitated, and the soloist gets excellent opportunities to show virtuosity. The orchestra, as in other Lalo's concertante works, has a prominent role and is not reduced to mere accompaniment à la Paganini. The second movement is a sister of the slow movement of Saint-Saëns' Third Concerto. It has the same caressing sweetness, but alas, is so short. The beginning of the third movement is strikingly bold and promises a lot of good surprises, which are provided in due course. Some themes are banal, but their abundance makes up for this: Lalo is not a miser!

Fantaisie norvégienne is a tiny concerto in the familiar pattern: slow introduction and allegro - sweet romance - devilishly virtuosic finale. A tender oboe invites you to the pleasures of nature. Violin flights and falls draw the picture of fjords and cliffs. You can physically feel the freshness of the air. And then a dance begins. It is a real folk dance, with an infectious rhythm and a merry stomp. Lalo claimed to use genuine folk tunes. The middle part is another quiet pastorale, exactly what you would expect in this place in such a piece. The soloist gets to strut his stuff a lot throughout the fantasy, but it's the final part where the whole rainbow of skills and tricks is on display. Going faster and faster, the music is absolutely enthralling.

While the Violin Concerto lacks a certain profundity, and the Fantaisie norvégienne is a pretty postcard akin to Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, the Symphonie espagnole is an acclaimed masterpiece. Its national character is a homage to its dedicatee Sarasate, and not a tribute to the fashion for Spanish-hued pieces, so popular in French music in those days. Actually, Lalo's creation was the first to appear in this colorful, clamorous family, followed by Bizet's Carmen. More a suite with violin obbligato than a symphony or a standard concerto, it was envisioned by the composer as "a violin soaring above the rigid form of an old-fashioned symphony". The choice of name was a clever marketing move: just try to accept it and it will start to feel right somehow.

The beginning is not especially Spanish. Hating to be called a jester and wishing to be acknowledged as a serious composer of Germanic tradition, Lalo almost managed to suppress his natural style, on the way losing some charm. So the first movement is a solid symphonic attempt, with echoes of Brahms and an odd mixture of styles. Though it has some wonderful moments, they are not new. Anyway, the part works well as a starting point. And as if having said "OK, I did it, now let's have fun", Lalo then takes off his serious cap, and the magic begins.

The second movement is a perfumed, lilting seguidilla, and the orchestra turns into one huge guitar. Then comes the Intermezzo, the most Spanish part of the symphony, its character closest to the ground. It has one of Lalo's most memorable tunes, a habanera worthy of Carmen, though the picture it paints is less of a rebellious bird and more of some old Azucena in a good mood. The brooding, somber Andante has a heartfelt melody, while the orchestral part could come from Mendelssohn's Scottish shores. The final rondo is once again a shower of virtuosic bravura, yet irresistibly charming. And there is a delightful malagueña right in the middle of it. The orchestration is ingenious and piquant throughout.

There is a crowd of symphonies espagnoles on the market, and almost nothing for the other two pieces. You would probably want this disc if you like conservative French music of the late 19th Century. Jean-Jacques Kantorow's violin is a 1699 Stradivarius, its voice smooth and white, rather high-timbre. Instead of big romantic gestures à la Saint-Saëns or Tchaikovsky, Kantorow gives us a finely worked lace, very beautiful. However in a lace it can be difficult to follow the main line, which happens here sometimes. The playing is clear on the molecular level, all the tiniest filigree details are sharp. This version of the symphony is brisker and lighter than many other performances in the catalog, and very enthusiastic. However, let us not forget that these three works were created for Sarasate, whose manner of playing was reputedly so relaxed and natural that it almost seemed off-hand. A shade more lazy nonchalance would have been welcome, especially in the symphony. It is just so busy.

The orchestral backing is superb, never too heavy, and very rhythmically precise. The conductor Kees Bakels certainly does a great job and is in good accord with the soloist. The program notes in English, German and French are tasty and nutritious, telling a lot about the pre- and post-natal life of the works. The recording is clear, the listener is put in a concert-hall perspective: the soloist is perceptibly closer, and the orchestra sounds two-dimensional. Together with the lightweight approach taken by the soloist and the conductor, this makes the symphony sound fresh and young, as opposed to more ripe, meaty, probably more expressive but also more mannered interpretations. Still, I feel something is lost.

Oleg Ledeniov 

 


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