Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole (CD review)

Also, Namouna, Suites 1 and 2; Scherzo in D minor. Alexandre Da Costa, violin; Carlos Kalmar, Orquesta Sinfonica de Ratio Television Espanola. Warner Classics 2564 65711-4.

Is it just me, or does it appear as though certain composers go in and out of vogue every few years? It seems like twenty or thirty years ago, everybody was recording Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. Then, either I didn’t notice or nobody appeared interested in the man or his music. OK, you’re right; it’s probably just me. In any case, this new Warner Classics disc from Canadian violinist Alexandre Da Costa pleased me and brought back a ton of old memories.

The French composer Édouard-Victoire-Antoine Lalo (1823-1892) wrote a number of works, but people today probably know him best for his Symphonie Espagnole in D minor, Op. 21, for violin and orchestra (1874). Interestingly, Tchaikovsky also liked the piece, and when he heard it and played it through himself, it so influenced him that he dropped everything and wrote his own violin concerto. But that’s another story. The one here is about Da Costa’s performance of the work, and how he and Maestro Carlos Kalmar view it.

The accompanying booklet note advises that a listener first hear a few other recordings of the work before trying Da Costa’s interpretation, suggesting that the listener will find Da Costa’s version much less hurried, much less fierce. So I did just that: I put on Yan Pascal Tortelier’s EMI recording with Louis Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and listened to the opening Allegro non troppo. Tortelier was, indeed, faster and more overtly exciting. However, I also noticed that Da Costa was remarkably versatile, both in the lyrical as well as the more bravura passages. He takes his time developing the music, providing plenty of color as well as a deep sense of melancholy. You’ll find little that is in the light French tradition here, even though Lalo was French. Da Costa’s rendition is thoroughly Spanish inflected, filled with strong emotions and high drama.

Da Costa says, again in the booklet note, that “a conductor once told me, ‘If you play fast and you accelerate, it just shows fear. If you play slower and hold your tempo, it shows strength.’ That’s the key for me when I play Spanish music.” This style is particularly evident in the second-movement Scherzando, which comes off beautifully and is probably the most Spanish-sounding music on the disc.

Lalo’s Intermezzo, a kind of habanera, is full of power and passion. The composer said he wanted the work to be foremost a violin solo soaring above a conventional symphony, and that’s the way Da Costa and Kalmar play it.

The Andante begins gravely but soon gives way to a lovely, flowing melody on the violin, which Da Costa appears to take great joy in playing. Lastly, the performers provide a thrilling Rondo finale in grand fashion where they demonstrate their mastery of Spanish romanticism.

As a coupling, Maestro Kalmar and his orchestra offer two suites (of five movements each) from Lalo’s oft-neglected ballet Namouna. Its lighter moments are its best ones, and Kalmar brings out what must be the best in the score. While neither the suites nor the concluding Scherzo in D minor are among the most-memorable music you can find, it is all pleasant enough, with a ton of atmosphere and theatrics.

Producer and engineer Phil Rowlands recorded the music in 2012 at the Teatro Monumental, Madrid, Spain. The results he obtained sound excellent, very clean and very clear, with a quick, well-focused transient impact, a wide dynamic range, good midrange transparency, and well-extended highs. The stereo spread is also impressive, as is the overall clarity, if it also sounds a trifle hard. The orchestra is a tad close, but the violin sounds especially natural, with good bite and resonance. Compared to the aforementioned EMI-Tortelier recording, however, the Warner sonics could use more depth and greater warmth. Still, without the side-by-side comparison (which the Warner booklet invites, understand), the sound of the Warner Classics is quite fine.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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