By Julian Schwarz
The Lalo Concerto in D minor for Cello and Orchestra is both a passionate rhapsody and a whimsical character piece. Though popular among students, its history tells a story of prominence on the concert stage, which I am attempting to restore as I open the Charleston Symphony’s season with it in September, as well as make my Buffalo Philharmonic debut with it in November. Édouard Lalo has been marginalized as a composer wed to Spanish influence (he was of Spanish descent), yet his idolization of Beethoven and Schumann lends a peek into his more Germanic compositional style.
At the time of the work’s composition (1876), there was, other than Schumann, Saint-Saens, and the D major Haydn, very little serious music for solo cellists to perform with orchestra. (The Rococo Variations of Tchaikovsky were premiered the same year as the Lalo, 1877.) The Lalo became a staple for cellists early on—the great maestro Pablo Casals made his debut with it in Paris in 1899. It is a serious work, meant to be performed with great pathos, depth, and richness of tone. The opening recitatives in the cello are of Beethovenian influence, and the first theme is reminiscent of the Schumann A minor Concerto. There is much opportunity for wit and playfulness in the second and third movements, with Spanish rhythms and swing, but these moments are only contrasting to the more poignant sections. The audience should be left feeling emotionally touched more than entertained.
The work is brilliantly written from a cellistic perspective, as it showcases the deepest register as well as the brightest. It is idiomatic, and fits well in the hand—most likely due to the fact that Lalo was himself both a cellist and violinist. One might notice that there is a dearth of double-stops (zero in total) throughout the piece. Lalo must have known that by adding another string of vibration, he would cut the instrument’s resonance in half. Given this deliberate absence, cellists might think twice about adding the blocked fifth at the beginning of the first theme.
With respect to editions, edits were frequent in the early performances of the work. Therefore there is much opportunity to choose between varied virtuosic passages (or create your own!). There is a relatively new critical edition by Bärenreiter, which is quite useful to consult, along with Kalmus, and the International Edition edited by Leonard Rose. That said, the orchestral parts I use are from Kalmus, as the new Bärenreiter edition’s parts omit a few powerful orchestral contributions that are vital to the work’s intensity.