Constant Lambert, Vol. 2 = DELIBES: Overture “Le Roi l’a dit”; MEYERBEER: Coronation March from Le Prophete; CHABRIER: Marche joyeuse; TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 – London Philharmonic Orchestra/Constant Lambert – Historic-Recordings HRCD 0075, 58:59 [www.historic-recordings.co.uk] **** :
Restorations that feature the work of gifted British composer-conductor Constant Lambert (1905-1951) always demand our notice, and this disc more than most, since it includes one of his most illustrious recordings, the Tchaikovsky Fifth from 1-2 March 1939. This symphony did well in the age of shellacs, having received fine performances from Landon Ronald, Frederick Stock, Sir Thomas Beecham, Willem Mengelberg–albeit it in a cut edition of the last movement–and Serge Koussevitzky. The remaining items testify to Lambert’s unqualified success as a ballet conductor and master in musical theater: not the least of his accomplishments was his having become the unofficial “great love” of the famed British ballerina Margot Fonteyn.
The Overture by Leo Delibes (14 December 1938) has a certain fascination as a period piece, a bombastic main theme countered by a courtly secondary tune, somewhat suggestive of an MGM pseudo-oriental fantasy. A suave languor occupies the middle section, the kind of sentiment Ketelby relishes for his own “exotic” settings. The deft play of the busy-work counterpoint testifies to the excellent level of execution by the LPO. The energetic patter and flourishes–come to think of it–might have influenced Gilbert and Sullivan. The war-horses Coronation March by Meyerbeer and Marche joyeuse by Chabrier (28 June 2939) alternately display pomp and pageantry, a stolid nobility and wry wit. The cleanliness of the LPO string trill warrants our admiration, and the brass section–meeting demands for double- and triple-tonguing–can pack quite a wallop. The Chabrier manages a plethora of diaphanous colors even in the midst of its sarcastic militancy.
From the outset of the Tchaikovsky Fifth’s brooding “fate” motif, we feel we are privy to an inspired reading of this familiar pageant, deeply thoughtful, colorful, and rhythmically savvy. Once Lambert sets the metric pulse for the animated section after the low clarinets have held sway, the momentum becomes quite inexorable, the struggle between E Minor, A Minor and modes of D now a cosmic fixation. Occasionally a balletic gesture wends its way through the emotional crises, but at the recapitulation the main theme swells in anguished fury in another of Tchaikovsky’s musico-biographical paroxysms of Romantic Agony. The famous second-movement D Major lyrical theme in the French horn resonates beautifully, especially as its string complement enters with the oboe and flute. Lambert achieves a fluid nobility of line that suffers neither sag in the tension nor cloying sentimentality. The fugato section of the middle episode emanates lustrous texture and vitality, proceeding to a restatement of the “fate” motif and its “collapse” into pizzicato. When the main theme returns, it seems to sail with renewed energy and a degree of optimism that adumbrates the eventual triumph in E Major the last movement accomplishes.
The Valse movement–with its insistence on metric instability via the use of hemiolas–appeals to Lambert’s natural gift for streamlined ballet music. The airiness of the textures proves quite fleet, as though Tchaikovsky wanted something of Mendelssohn’s fey sensibilities. The sudden appearance of the fate motif at the conclusion of the movement casts not gloom but rather a sense of adversarial anticipation. The last movement has Lambert’s releasing his energies in small doses, and we know the explosion to be inevitable. The moving bass line in the LPO deep strings and low brass captures our attention even as the fateful march proceeds and swells to challenge the forces of regeneration. What some critics characterized as “a mad Cossack dance” breaks out in resonant glory under Lambert – his ability to galvanize the LPO sound no less polished and homogenized than what Mravinsky achieved in Leningrad or Koussevitzky in Boston. The LPO trumpets announce an ascent to glory in no uncertain terms, and even the self-congratulatory solipsism of the final march cannot detract from the magnificence of the orchestral discipline we witness, in spite of shellacs almost 75 years old.
A long time coming this reissue; but now that is it here, seize the day.
— Gary Lemco
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