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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)

Scottish Fantasy Op. 46 (1879-80)
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)

Symphonie espagnole Op.21 (1873)
Tasmin Little (violin)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Recorded in City Hall, Glasgow, 4-5 January 1996, DDD
EMI CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 7243 5 75802 2 [67’42]


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This disc was always a desirable one and a best seller in its original Eminence garb. A re-issue on the budget CFP label will probably guarantee success all over again. It has so many things going for it. For a start, the sound quality is superb (as you would expect from Mike Hatch) with strings caught in full bloom, and brass ringing out gloriously. Then there is the coupling, so logical and yet not all that common. In fact the only serious rival appears to be from Anne Akiko Meyers and the RPO under Lopez-Cobos, which is at full price and was not as well received anyway as this EMI. And then there is the playing, as rich, atmospheric and full-bloodedly romantic as one could wish for.

These pieces really make excellent bedfellows. Both are in an unconventional five movement concertante form, and both seek to be picture postcard evocations of other cultures, a German’s of Scotland and a Frenchman’s of Spain. How ‘authentic’ they are is virtually irrelevant, as one is swept away by the plethora of memorable tunes, infectious rhythms and the sheer drama and colour of both works. As the soloist, Tasmin Little is responsible for a large part of the disc’s success. Her tone is secure and weighty throughout, and she delivers both works with a mixture of dedicated concentration and improvisatory flair that I, for one, would find hard to imagine bettered.

The Bruch Scottish Fantasy (or to give its full title Fantasia for the violin with orchestra and harp, freely using Scottish folk melodies) has sometimes been accused of bordering on kitsch. In fact, it is a blend of well-chosen, often haunting or melancholy tunes that are very skilfully woven into the tightly organised orchestral texture. Little’s cleanness of articulation, not least in the heavy double-stopping, makes for an unforced eloquence and real sense of lyrical fantasy. The rapt intensity of her very first pianissimo entry in the slow introduction is evidence of this, and the double-stopped first statement of the main theme of the first movement (‘Through the wood, laddie’) is beautifully tender and precise (1.07). Handley’s support is inspired; there is a section at the end where, after the finale’s main theme (‘Scots wha hae’) has given way to a reprise of this first movement tune, Handley keeps the orchestra down to an absolute whisper for the violin to float over, a wonderful moment perfectly judged by soloist and conductor.

The Lalo is no less successful. Handley again shows his mastery in keeping the many varied dance rhythms, which can be unwieldy and make the piece too episodic, under tight control. His tempi err on the cautious, but with accents sharply etched there is never any danger of things getting stodgy. The Intermezzo, with its infectious Cuban habanera lilt, finds Little winningly spontaneous. The finale fair zips along, with Handley again making the most out of the zapateado rhythm, and Little showing marvellously quicksilver passagework to crown a very satisfying reading. These two intelligent musicians make the work far more than the barnstorming showpiece it often becomes.

Notes are a slightly truncated version of Tully Potter’s original and recording, as mentioned above, truly excellent. There is competition galore for the separate pieces, but none I’ve come across are any more persuasive than this, and in this coupling and budget format, this deserves the strongest recommendation.

Tony Haywood


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