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Édouard LALO (1823-1892)
Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21 (1874) [34:44]
Namouna: Suite No. 1 (1881-2) [23:51]
Namouna: Suite No. 2 (1881-2) [14:33]
Scherzo in D minor (1884) [4:25]
Alexandre Da Costa (violin)
RTVE Symphony Orchestra/Carlos Kalmar
rec. Teatro Monumental, Madrid, 2012
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 657114 [77:33]

In a way, I almost wish I'd not heard this performance of the Symphonie espagnole. Not that it isn't good - on the contrary - but because, for whatever reason, it pointed up Lalo's basically formulaic craftsmanship. Over and over, in the first three movements, the composer resorts to juxtaposing a block-like passage in the orchestra, frequently in stark octaves, against fluid, legato answering material, assigned either to the solo violin or to the orchestra. There's nothing wrong with this - contrast is a key to maintaining interest - but this is the first time I actually noticed this as a recurring pattern, and it became a distraction.

Fortunately, the latter two movements forge different paths. The broad, ominous start of the fourth, quite out of keeping with what has preceded, moves into a sort of Mediterranean-vacation music, with the soloist injecting melancholy, reflective commentary. The fifth, in perky triple meter, begins quietly, expanding and contracting, a fine setting for numerous virtuoso violin flourishes.

Alexandre Da Costa proves a vivid soloist, bringing a good, energetic bowstroke to the more incisive passages. His tone is focused and intense rather than "warm," but he nonetheless infuses the lyrical phrases with melting expression. I'd not swear that every note of the passagework speaks dead center, but the vaulting upward intervals land with assurance and pinpoint accuracy. The Uruguayan conductor Carlos Kalmar gives him the best kind of orchestral support: it doesn't call attention to itself, but it's full of colour and rhythmic life. His forthright manner nonetheless allows for enough space and "breathing" time.

The conductor is less consistent in the two suites from the ballet Namouna. He chooses good tempi - though the Dolce far niente seems not languid enough - and shapes the quieter, more lyrical passages beautifully. He also captures the music's occasional ambivalence: the fanfares at the start of the Parade de foire are at once peremptory and agitated. Unfortunately, his feel for the tuttis is less sure, or less formed. Thus, the Prélude's slow introduction is wonderful - mysterious, its variety of colours evocative of nature's gradual awakening - but its climax, which wants to be full and expansive, is merely big and loud. The closing tutti of the Theme varié is suitably ceremonial, but aggressive rather than resplendent. There's no swagger to the rigid, bandmasterish Fête foraine.

The D minor Scherzo is an attractive, splashy novelty. Even when the brasses take up the motifs -- as frequently happens among the French post-Wagnerians -- the rhythms are alert and "dancey." Ghostly pizzicatos introduce a warmer, fuller Trio, followed by a telescoped recapitulation.

The engineers, like the conductor, do their best work in the quieter moments: the soft castanets in the Dolce far niente are breathtakingly clear. On the other hand, the tuttis, particularly in the second Namouna suite, harden unpleasantly in a way that a real orchestra's playing doesn't, or shouldn't. The program notes tell us a bit about the Symphonie espagnole and quite a lot about the soloist, the conductor, and the orchestra, but barely mention either Namouna or the Scherzo.

In the Namouna music, the graceful Ansermet (Decca) and the glowing Martinon (DG) have held up well, musically and sonically; both add the once-notorious Valse de la cigarette to the suites proper. Given the onetime popularity of the Symphonie, I'm surprised to find myself stuck for a clear recommendation. The extant Heifetz version (RCA) is monaural; Perlman's first go-round (RCA, with Previn) is slick, his second (DG, with Barenboim) heavy; and I barely remember Chung's (Decca), which isn't a good sign. I suppose I'd go with the reliable Stern/Ormandy (Sony).

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is the Principal Conductor of Lighthouse Opera in New York (lighthouseopera.org)



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