In music too easily dismissed as Pops fodder, John Lanchbery's
care over expressive detail is gratifying. In the L'Arlésienne
suite, for example, after a vigorous statement of the Prélude's
theme in unison strings, the clarinet's liquid, plaintive phrasing
that follows is affecting. Similarly, it's easy enough to bring
out the soaring line in the central section of the Intermezzo;
Lanchbery's shaping of the counter-melody is also graceful
and lilting. The buoyant delicacy of the excerpts from La jolie
fille de Perth reflects the conductor's background in
the ballet pit. Even the Patrie overture, where one might
have expected bombast, here proves a work of considerable charm.
The problems come with Roma. Truth be told, the score isn't
as bad as its reputation - no doubt the fresh, youthful Symphony in
C has cast a long shadow over this later, more ambitious work - and
there's some gorgeous music in it. The inner movements - an
infectious, imposing scherzo not unlike that of the earlier symphony,
and a yearning Andante molto - are particularly striking.
The expressive, horn-dominated chorale, intensified by the tang of
mild dissonance, that begins and ends the first movement is similarly
affecting. The turbulent body of the movement is less so. It's
well enough wrought, but the musical gestures are generic and self-conscious
- rather like the wrong things about Liszt, though Bizet's
tunes are better, and we're spared the chains of diminished
seventh harmonies with which Liszt liked to migrate from point to
Even so, this would hardly represent an insurmountable obstacle, were
it not for the engineering. The "long" ambience, which elsewhere
enhances the colour and texture of the lightly scored passages, here
proves counterproductive, turning the melodramatic tuttis
opaque and monochromatic. Here the finale is a total loss: the theme
and the tarantella rhythms are fetching enough, but the relentless
din reduces the movement to so much empty-headed fustian.
On the positive side, of the handful of ABC Classics discs I've
heard - Stateside listeners should note that this is the Australian
Broadcasting Company, not the American - this one offers the most
polished orchestral playing. The woodwinds are limpid and expressive
in their solo turns. I've already cited the clarinet; the flute
solos in La jolie fille de Perth are touchingly fragile.
The horns are firm, full-throated, and eloquent in the Roma
chorale. The string tone can be a bit diffuse, but they muster ample
tonal body, and their phrasing is always musical.
Despite this issue's many virtues, the engineering earns it
a qualified recommendation, at best - and we're still waiting
for a first-class recording of Roma. Recording venues and
dates are not provided, but there's an original publication
date of 1999.
Stephen Francis Vasta
New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.