LALO Concertante Works for Violin, Cello & Piano
Much admired in his lifetime, Lalo’s concertante works still form the basis of his reputation thanks to the abiding popularity of the Cello Concerto and, above all, the Symphonie espagnole. They were mostly composed in the 1870s and owe their existence largely to Lalo’s friendship with Pablo Sarasate, to whom he offered the Violin Concerto in 1873. The premiere, the following January, made Lalo, hitherto primarily known for his chamber music, both successful and fashionable. The Symphonie espagnole was composed, effectively in gratitude, later in 1874 and the Fantaisie norvégienne, at Sarasate’s suggestion, in 1878. The sequence came to a halt the following year, however, when Sarasaste declined the Concerto russe, though he later took the Fantaisie-ballet on themes from Namouna (1885) into his repertory. The Cello Concerto was written for Adolphe Fischer in 1877. Louis Diémer gave the first performance of the Piano Concerto, a late work, in 1889.
In some respects, they were groundbreaking. None exploits virtuosity for its own sake, and Lalo strives throughout for expressive integration between soloist and orchestra – too much so, perhaps, in the Piano Concerto, where the pianist at times becomes an ensemble player. The evocations of Russia, Norway and Spain – in Guitare and the Romance-sérénade as well as in the Symphonie espagnole – edge towards programme music, and the exoticism of Lalo’s orchestral writing is well to the fore.
Made in Belgium last year, this set allows us to hear them complete. Jean-Jacques Kantorow conducts, and the soloists are drawn from the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Brussels, founded in 1939 to provide facilities for extensive study for talented young musicians. Kantorow drives the music hard but the Liège Royal Philharmonic sound appealingly suave, and Lalo’s trademark snap-chord accentuations are all exactingly in place. The soloists don’t disappoint, though some face stiff competition. Lorenzo Gatto’s fierily sensual Symphonie espagnole is hampered by a close-ish recording that catches occasional gasps of effort. You may prefer Sarah Chang (EMI, 5/96) or Christian Tetzlaff (Virgin, 7/94) here. Ori Epstein is wonderfully eloquent in his ruminative account of the Cello Concerto but doesn’t quite have the authority of Jacqueline du Pré with Barenboim (EMI, 11/95).
Pride of place, perhaps, goes to Woo Hyung Kim, who plays the F major Concerto and Guitare, and to Elina Buksha with the Concerto russe. Buksha has the more difficult task: the third of the work’s four movements conveys the excitement of a standard finale, which can make the grandiose last movement seem extraneous if not carefully handled. Her commitment, however, is never in doubt: there’s real intensity in the Lento and dazzling passagework elsewhere. Kim proves a master technician, sweet in tone and ultra-refined in expression. Guitare is exquisitely skittish. The F major Concerto lives and breathes with wonderful subtlety.
Vladyslava Luchenko is allocated the Fantaisie norvégienne and the remainder of the shorter, more extrovert violin works, which she delivers with consummate dexterity and finesse. Nathanaël Gouin, meanwhile, tackling the Piano Concerto, makes much of Lalo’s sometimes ungrateful solo writing with its big chordal progressions and relentlessly hurtling scales. It’s a fine achievement overall; and, as with other recent Lalo recordings, you’re left wondering why comparatively little of his music forms part of the regular repertory.