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Lalo: Concerto russe, Piano Concerto - Kantorow, Volondat, Bakels

Lalo: Concerto russe, Piano Concerto - Kantorow, Volondat, Bakels

BIS  BIS-SACD-1890

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Édouard Lalo:
Concerto russe for violin and orchestra Op. 29
Romance-Sérénade for violin and orchestra
Fantaisie-ballet for violin and orchestra
Guitare for violin and orchestra Op. 28 (orch. Gabriel Pierné)
Piano Concerto

Jean-Jacques Kantorow (violin)
Pierre-Alain Volondat (piano)
Tapiola Sinfonietta
Kees Bakels (conductor)


‘A disc without flaws, a true marvel’ is how Jean-Jacques Kantorow’s previous recording of music by Édouard Lalo was described in the Spanish magazine Scherzo. The disc in question included three works composed for the great violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate: the violin concerto, Fantaisie norvégienne and the perennial favourite Symphonie espagnole.

In a review in Gramophone, the soloist was compared to his great predecessor: ‘Kantorow, one of today's most individual players, has the measure of Lalo's Sarasate-inspired violin-writing - he's able to toss off the virtuoso passagework in a seemingly effortless manner and his distinctive tone lends a sensuous allure to Lalo's melodies.’

On the present disc, Kantorow plays two other works intended for Sarasate, the brief Fantaisie-ballet on themes from Lalo’s ballet Namouna, and the large-scale Concerto russe. The latter piece, in four movements, borrows themes from two wedding songs included by Rimsky-Korsakov in his collection 100 Russian Folk Songs. A typically expressive and virtuosic composition, it is also one of the first important French works to draw upon Russian music – many others were to follow.

Two shorter violin works are included here, but the disc closes with another concerto, the Piano Concerto from 1888. It was the composer’s final major work, and in it he seems to depart from the pattern of his violin concertos, with their prominent solo parts. Lalo rather chooses to integrate the piano into the orchestral texture, and although the writing is redolent of the great Romantic concertos, it offers few opportunities for the soloist to show off – a possible reason for the work’s absence from modern concert programmes and its rarity on disc.

Championing this solo part is Pierre-Alain Volondat, and as in the other works orchestral support is provided by the eminent Tapiola Sinfonietta, conducted by Kees Bakels.

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Review by John Miller - May 25, 2012

In their survey of Eduard Lalo's concertante works for violin, BIS already released an RBCD disc with Kantorow, including Lalo's Symphonie espagnole, which garnered warm critical acclaim. The present disc follows with somewhat lesser fare, including sundry pieces for violin and orchestra, as well as Lalo's only Piano Concerto. This time, the orchestra is the excellent Tapiola Sinfonietta, under the baton of Kees Bakels.

As the informative booklet notes reveal, Eduard Lalo (1823-92) was a rather self-effacing character who didn't court fame to any great extent. However, he played a considerable part in the turmoil of musical Paris in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. Various fervent camps developed; the Wagnerites were in the descendent (although still vocal), while Debussy's followers were in the ascendant, as were the Brahms-ites. Lalo's home salon was one of the most frequented by musicians for their heated discussions, and here he shared his own views about how French music could progress by adding new harmonies and textures, first by introducing a Spanish influence in his sensation-causing Symphonie espagnole, and then, as shown on the present disc, by introducing Russian influences.

As with his Symphonie espagnole, Lalo composed the Concerto Russe Op.29 (1879) for Pablo de Sarasate, the Spanish composer-violinist, whose brilliant playing was the talk of Paris. Lalo had become friends with Sarasate, and this new concerto relied on his "diabolical" virtuosity. So he was mortified when Sarasate refused to play the new piece, for reasons no longer known.

Seeing it as another antidote to Wagner worship, Lalo had encountered Russian culture and music at the Paris World Fair of 1878. He mined some Russian folk song tunes from Rimsky-Korsakov's collection and incorporated them into the second and fourth movements of his new piece, initially conceived as a four movement suite. His wise advisers told him to call a Concerto, as it would then have star billing at a concert, rather than being relegated. So "Concerto Russe" it became.

Kantorow, as a former chief conductor of the Tapiola Sinfonietta, has a good rapport with the orchestra, expressed in their mutual communication in this performance of Concerto Russe. Wielding his 1699 Strad, Kantorow's silky tone and easy virtuosity makes a very strong case for the return of this piece to the concert hall. Although darker in mood than the Symphonie espagnol, there is plenty of colourful orchestral detail to support the violin, and the Russian folk tunes are both charming and disarming. There is, of course, a suitably spirited conclusion.

Several other slighter concertante works for violin and orchestra follow. The brief Romance Serenade (1877) is intriguing, with its sunny, languid opening and laissez-faire violin tune, played beguilingly by Kantorow. Fantasie-Ballet (1885) features 2 movements from Lalo's Namaouna ballet of 1881, which has been considered as one of the masterpieces of C19th French music. Debussy much admired its "marvellous harmonies". It was also dedicated to Sarasate. However, the material Lalo selected is frankly not very interesting or striking, and the piece relies on the arabesques of the violin to carry it through, which Kantorow is more than happy to do.

Reverting to his preoccupation with faux-Spanish music, Guitarra (1880) is a short piece originally for violin and piano, later orchestrated by Gabriel Pierné. The Spanish flavour comes mainly from the guitar-like string plucking of the violin, together with castanets in the orchestra.

Lalo's Piano Concerto in F minor (1888) is dutiful rather than inspired; all composers worth their salt were required to produce one or more piano concertos. Lalo's affinities, however, lay much more with the violin. He turned to César Franck's Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra for a model, and adopted Franck's technique of using one theme which reappears in each movement from his Symphony in D minor.

The opening of the concerto is slow and solemn, blossoming into an heroic chordal statement of the (not very memorable) main theme. Pierre-Alain Volundat plays with strong tone, but is given little in the way of pianistic material. Lalo does not provide proper thematic development, but simply produces a series of repeated phrases moulded into false climaxes in an ever louder and more assertive, rhetorical style, which rapidly becomes tedious. The slow movement, with dark wind chording, has a similarly bland theme which is also repeated and repeated, culminating in a contrived coda which is pure kitsch. The final Allegro is heavy and elephantine until whipped up energetically with more repeats, although there is a second, more lyrical theme. Sadly, Volundut is mostly monochromatic in his playing. Really what is needed with this troublesome music is a lighter touch from both pianist and conductor, rather than over-projecting in an attempt to increase the concerto's stature.

It is certainly worthwhile to hear the Piano Concerto in the context of Lalo's far more accomplished concertante works with violin. The Piano Concerto is rarely recorded, partly because it is staid and sombre (and maddeningly insistent on vapid repetition). As far as I can tell, no recorded performers have been able to make it much more than a museum piece, especially when compared with the glittering, multicoloured Saint-Saëns piano concertos.

Given the very lively acoustic of the Tapiola Concert Hall, the BIS capture at 44.1kHz/24bit is of a very high standard, with the orchestra well-focussed. There is plenty of deep bass and Kantorow's wonderful violin contributions are nicely balanced, sharing the hall's bloom with the orchestra. There is plenty of detailed information in the booklet, especially an engaging portrait of Lalo's unorthodox character.

As an episode in the history of C19th French music, and for its superb violin playing, this is a disc well worth having, while the Piano Concerto perhaps remains unconvincing.

Apart from the Symphonie espagnole, Lalo's music is rarely heard in the concert hall these days,

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - May 27, 2012

Another interesting disk from BIS, delving into largely unexplored French musical territory. For most ‘mélomanes’ Edouard Lalo equals 'Symphonie Espagnole'. Here, the two main works clearly are the ‘Concert Russe’ for violin and orchestra and the piano concerto; the other three pieces being welcome ‘fillers’. The violin concerto was new to me. The liner notes explain extensively why Lalo, after his Spanish adventure, turned to Russia.

Listening to the concerto, however, its Russian credentials are not exactly overwhelming. True, Russian folk music was used in the second and fourth movement, but the authentic Russian lilt from these wedding songs is missing, nor do we find much of a typical Slavic vein. In fact, the concerto, and most notably the intermezzo, is more reminiscent of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole.

Russian or not, Kees Bakels, dishes up a most pleasing concerto, with Jean-Jacques Kantorow as competent soloist. Collaboration between the two is perfect. Maybe also because of their ‘Dutch Connection’: As far as I know, Kantorow has been Concertmaster of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, of which, for some time, Bakels was its Chief Conductor. As for the seamless interplay with the Tapiola Sinfonietta, it may be recalled that Jean-Jacques Kantorow was their ‘Chef’ for many years.

Another ‘connection’ is the French one between Kantorow and Pierre-Alain Volondat, the soloist in Lalo’s piano concerto. Not only have they made recordings together, but they also know one another from the period Kantorow was artistic leader of the Orchestre d’Auvergne (a well-known French regional orchestra).

Some recordings of Lalo’s piano concerto exist, but their quality is questionable. We should, therefore, be grateful to BIS offering us an account leaving the ‘competition’ far behind.

Piere-Alain Volondat is not an ordinary pianist. His view of the world is (or maybe was) mystical. After winning the Concours Reine Elisabeth in 1983 he said in an interview (asked if he had expected to win the first prize) that he was sure to win, having incarnated the tradition of Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. (« je suis le messager, le continuateur de la chaine spirituelle de la grande tradition de Beethoven, Schumann et Brahms »).

Volondat’s career did not take off easily. After a couple of hectic years he gradually disappeared from the public scene. In the nineties he recorded Fauré for Naxos, but on the whole it remained quiet around him, his personality being not very accessible. It seemed as though he preferred to live in a world of his own. He started to play less and devoted himself more to teaching. An article in the Belgian press (April 2010) headed not surprisingly ‘The Strange Mister Volondat’.

But of late he went back to the recording studio and recorded (with Kantorow) amongst others all three Schumann violin sonatas. I am sure that his loyal followers are glad to see and hear him working with BIS for a comeback as a soloist.

Volondat is known for delving deep into a composition in order to prepare himself ‘comme si c'était un laboratoire, une recomposition de l'oeuvre’ (as though it were a laboratory, a re-composition of the work). Taking into account the limitations of this concerto, the result does not disappoint, as you may want to judge for yourself.

But I should add, in all honesty, that not all of Lalo’s oeuvre is something of a ‘must have’. It fits in the (late) romantic tradition, well-constructed without being outstanding in terms of musical invention. This disk is nonetheless worth considering if you want to explore this composer beyond the Symphonie Espagnole.

The fillers (sorry, it sounds a bit negative, but it is not meant that way) are of variable quality, largely composed for its soloist virtuosity. The piece I liked best is the ‘Romance-Sérénade’ for violin and orchestra, which, by the way, sounds, at least to me, more Russian than the ‘Concert Russe’.

The notes are excellent, the recording a bit on the bright side, but with a warm bass fundament. The violin is (as usual) over exposed. This became all the more apparent after having listened during the past week to the finals of the 2012 Queen Elisabeth violin competition.

Copyright © 2012 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Review by Mark Novak - January 11, 2014

For practical purposes, Edouard Lalo is a two-hit wonder – his Symphonie Espagnole (in all but name a violin concerto) and his D minor cello concerto being by far his most popular works. He was not a prolific composer and BIS has undertaken a survey of some of his orchestral output of which this SACD is the third volume released (the two prior RBCD volumes contained the aforementioned Espangnole coupled with the Violin Concerto in F, Op.20 and the cello concerto coupled with the symphony in G minor). There are two substantial works on this program – the Concerto Russe for violin and orchestra (1879) and the late piano concerto (1888).

In a similar vein to Espagnole, Lalo set about creating a violin concerto with Russian influences in his Concerto Russe. To a large degree he succeeds – this is the Russia of Rimsky-Korsakov and Rubenstein however rather than Tchaikovsky. Lalo does employ a couple of authentic Russian melodies in the second and fourth movements (according to the excellent booklet notes by Jean-Pascal Vachon) and the whole thing is an enjoyable romp in the late romantic concerto idiom. Jean-Jacques Kantarow is a marvel, playing the violin with authority and accuracy and Kees Bakels directs the Tapiola Sinfonietta splendidly.

The Piano Concerto, in three movements, is perhaps a bit less engaging than the violin concerto but it is still a very well-constructed and enjoyable virtuosic vehicle for the soloist. It reminds me of something that Rachmaninov might have composed on one of his less-than-optimal days. This concerto will not change your world but it is a pleasant 22 minutes of late romantic music. Pianist Pierre-Alain Volondat has the full measure of the piano part and Bakes and team do their thing in a solid performance.

The disc is filled out (71:36 total timing) with three shorter works for violin and orchestra that are pleasant and nicely played. Sonically, this is another very fine recording from BIS. It was recorded in the Tapiola concert hall and engineered by the reliable Hans Kipfer using a pcm resolution of 44 kHz/24 bits. The one quibble I have sonically is during the fff climax of the first movement of the piano concerto the sound gets very briefly congested and sounds distorted as if they exceeded the headroom of the digital recorder. Otherwise, this is another excellent recording with a great balance of direct and hall sound and overall natural sounding timbres. Recommended for a pleasant romantic wallow.

Copyright © 2014 Mark Novak and HRAudio.net

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