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Lalo the Charmer

The MHS Review 238 Vol. 3, No. 4 • April 16, 1979

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David M. Greene


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When l first made this record the subject of my daily aesthetic meditation, it tempted me to say that we seem to be in the midst of a Lalo revival. But further consideration made me wonder if the man was ever all that popular. Turning to the authorities, I discovered them to be of two minds about that. I find, for example. one English critic saying that he had to wait a long time for the recognition he merited. and another announ­cing that the blossoming of his reputation was one of the musical phenomena of the 1880's. The two statements are not necessarily antithetical--Lalo was, after all, born in 1823. But my concert-going experience and the performance history of his music suggests that if he blossomed, he must have been a night-blooming cereus. Of his three operas--one completed by someone else--only; Le Roi d'Ys (The King of Ys) was a success. It was so successful in fact that the Metropolitan gave it five whole performan­ces half a century ago and EMI recorded it thirty years later (but deemed that we Americans would not want to hear ii). One used to encounter the overture, with one of the most haunting phrases in all music, occasionally. and there are performances of the cello concertos (cellists are desperate for repertory). and occasional recordings of music from the pseudo-exotic ballet Namouna. (Debussy said that, compared with the general run of stupid ballets of the time. it was a masterpiece.) And then, of course. there's the Symphonie espagnole.

1 was going to add "which everyone knows.'· But caution sent me, like Ludwig of Bavaria. to Schwann (1958-78). O what a falling-off was there! In '58 there were fifteen recordings. in '68. ten, and in '78, five (plus one in MHS). Has it fallen from favor? It used to be inescapable. I once heard it under such circumstances that it killed my

interest in Lalo for years: When such things were rare and sort of clandestine thirty-five years ago. a friend took me to a meeting of an old-film society to see Fairbanks' "The Mark of Zorro.·' The society had no pianist, but it had a phonograph and four sides of Symphonie espagnole and they accompanied Mr. Fairbanks--again and again and again.

But there are signs of an awakening interest--though whether sincerely motivated or merely to titillate jaded record-buyers I can't say. Recently Peters International issued recordings of the two grossly neglected violin concerti. and recentlier I noted the announcement of a new Voxbox containing all the concerted works. And here we have MHS getting a foot up on the chamber music.

Lalo, of course. was a musical misfit in his time. He was a classicist when gummy, sentimentalized religiosity. and pretty-tune diddly-poop were the order of the day in the Gallic Fountainhead of Western Culture. As a performer in a concertizing string quartet, he had been infected with Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven. rather than with Gounod and Delibes. His was the clean spare line of Saint-Saens. the gleam of Bizet, the effervescence of Chabrier--he was Beaujolais in a muscatel world. Moreover, he wrote surprisingly little, and much of that is immature work. The first two (of three) trios were products of his twenties. There are two quintets from the same period that he did not bother to publish, and the second (of two) quartets is a rewrite of the first. And that covers all the music for chamber ensemble. Besides the violin sonata, there's one for cello. and a handful of encore pieces for those instruments. Besides two salon duets, there's nothing at all for piano.

Given these statistics and the almost total neglect of all of this work, I began once again to suspect my taste when I found myself delighted with these two pieces. I had to check the authorities to make sure it was okay to like them. It is. Edward Lockspeiser (in Alec Robertson's Penguin symposium Chamber Music) has this to say: "Of his three trios. the last written in 1880 is by far the best. containing a splendid scherzo (later orchestrated). and showing in the slow movement an inspired sense of melody." Lockspeiser goes on to say that, together with Faure's first quartet, "it laid the foundations of the modern school of French chamber music." Violinist Henri Temianka, who recorded the work on a small label a few years ago. calls the sonata "unjustly neglected." "Here, says he, "is Lalo the charmer, throughout in a happy, exuberant mood .... Lalo was always expert at exploit­ing the resources of the violin. The exquisite second movement, an Andante with varia­tions, sounds like an Hommage a Mozart, both in style and form." It's nice to find oneself in good company once in a while.

Review of Edouard Lalo, Music for Strings and Piano

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