I was tempted by this disc of Lalo music for two reasons: it includes two suites from the relatively rare ballet Namouna, and it is conducted by the very talented Carlos Kalmar. I didn't need another Symphonie Espagnole, but it's enjoyable to hear once in awhile - if not too often.
And indeed, it is Carlos Kalmar who is the star of this show. He and his fine orchestra are sensational. Their playing is full of dramatic dynamic contrasts and incisive, weighty articulation from the strings. It's thrilling to hear a full string section execute full, weighty down bows, heavy on the attack of hair on string. This kind of energy and involvement is sadly missing from so much of what we hear from today's lackadaisical orchestras.
Violinist Alexandre Da Costa is a good player and he brings drama, passion and excitement to the Symphonie. However, I'm not overly fond of his incessant, fast, nervous vibrato. Once in awhile it is effective. But when it never varies, even in more relaxed passages, it gets tiring after awhile. This, for me, is detrimental to this performance, although Kalmar's exuberant orchestral contribution compensates to a large degree.
The ballet is a glorious work, as is the short Scherzo in D Minor. It is all lovingly (and spectacularly) performed here. Someday it would be so nice to have the complete ballet. But alas, they've got to sell CDs, so we get just the suite and yet another Symphonie Espagnole...sigh. Even the booklet allocates just one short, uninformative paragraph to the ballet.
The real let-down of this release is Warner's sound. It occurred to me that I listen to so many releases from small, independent labels (Chandos, BIS, Pentatone, etc.), that I tend to take for granted the consistently excellent recorded sound to be heard on those discs. Hearing this disc from Warner, I'm immediately reminded of the lesser standards provided by the big labels. Sound quality becomes secondary to star-power (as evidenced by the blatantly ostentatious pose on this cover picture), selling in large quantities, and the endless glut of reissues. The recorded sound for Kalmar and company isn't terrible, but isn't great by any measure. It sounds hard and too close. It lacks spaciousness and bloom. And while not bright, it is light in the bass regions, resulting in a lack of richness and color. I'm so glad Kalmar has subsequently moved on to recording for Pentatone with his excellent Oregon Symphony. Those discs sound far superior to this one on Warner.
In sum, this disc is enjoyable for the rare ballet music and for Carlos Kalmar's conducting. Whether that is enough to justify the purchase price is debatable.