Lacombe Orchestral Works Dutton

Paul Lacombe (1837-1927)
Rapsodie sur des airs du Pays d’Oc, op. 128 (1906) 
Suite for piano and orchestra, op. 52 (1890) 
Concerto for horn and orchestra (c. 1875, ed. Martin Yates)
Symphony no. 2 in D major, op. 34 (1878-1881) 
Victor Sangiorgio (piano)
Peter Francomb (French horn)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Martin Yates
rec. 2021/22, Watford Colosseum, UK
world premiere recordings
Dutton Epoch CDLX7413 

If you’ve never heard of the French composer Paul Lacombe, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that this disc is actually the third volume in a Dutton Epoch series featuring his music.  In fact, both its predecessors were reviewed here by my colleagues, though it’s fair to say that their verdicts were mixed.  Philip R. Buttall thought that a disc of the composer’s piano trios would make “a really attractive and persuasive addition to any collection”.  David Barker, on the other hand, was less enthused by a CD that included a piano quartet, a cello sonata and a violin sonata, finding Lacombe’s music to be “perfectly fine… but when compared with the best French chamber works of the era, its shortcomings are obvious”.

This newly-released third volume in the series introduces us to a selection of Lacombe’s works for full orchestra.  They range in date of composition from a horn concerto thought to have been written in the mid-1870s to the Rapsodie sur des airs du Pays d’Oc which dates from 1906.  The latter, at less than eight minutes in length, is the shortest work included on the disc; the most substantial, not surprisingly, is the second symphony which clocks in at 29:36.  Observant readers will have already noted that every piece included on this well-filled disc is thereby enjoying its world premiere recording.  While that may add a frisson of excitement at the thought of discovering a hitherto unappreciated masterpiece or two, it also means, of course, that we are unable to compare conductor Martin Yates’s interpretations of the pieces with any other accounts.   

Because Lacombe failed to allocate an opus number to his horn concerto, the precise date of its composition remains conjectural.  Its 21st century editor (Martin Yates, once again) suggests that it is an early work, and some strong hints of Mendelssohn at one or two points in the allegro opening movement may bolster that opinion.  Even so, it is soon clear that Lacombe has a distinctive voice of his own, characterised primarily, I would say, by the fluent deployment of attractive melody.  That impression is confirmed in the second movement, an attractively lyrical lento interlude that, albeit less than four minutes in length, leaves a particularly favourable and lasting impression.  The allegro finale, the most substantial movement of the three, is a rather jaunty concoction that will have you, at times, thinking of a smart Parisian boulevardier strolling nonchalantly down the Champs-Élysées with the fashionable demimondaine of the moment on his arm.  Lacombe’s horn concerto emerges from its obscurity as a highly engaging composition that’s well worth a listen and would certainly be a crowd-pleaser at a live concert.  Unfortunately, I suspect that, in practice, we will be unlikely to hear it, both because of its unfamiliarity to prospective audiences and because its overall length of just 15 minutes or so would make it awkward to programme.  That’s a pity.

Lacombe’s second symphony, completed in 1881, is lean, direct and much to the point, done and dusted in just under half an hour.  As Nigel Simeone’s usefully illuminating booklet notes – on which I have gratefully relied for details of the composer’s career – point out, it was a piece that appealed to no less a figure than César Franck, for it pioneered the cyclic form that he himself was to exploit a few years later in his own D minor symphony.  Once again, Lacombe’s work engages the listener even on first hearing, demonstrating his gift for coming up with memorable melodies and then, while always keeping a definite end in view, developing them in felicitous directions.  An allegro opening movement that alternates passages of considerable energy with others of relaxed pastoral charm is followed by a rather solemn and at times quasi-religious adagio that steadily works its way to an impressively achieved climax.  If Martin Yates’s conjectural dating is correct, this symphony was composed only a few years after the early horn concerto.  It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, to encounter, in the symphony’s allegro vivo third movement, yet another definite suggestion of Mendelssohn, in the form of passages of skittering “fairy” music reminiscent of A midsummer night’s dream.  The succeeding finale, yet another winning combination of both energetic and more relaxed elements, ultimately reprises the opening passage of the first movement and thereby completes the cyclic form.    

Like the preceding pieces, the four-movement op. 52 suite for piano and orchestra is both accomplished and listener-friendly.  In one particular respect, however, it is something of an outlier.  Although Lacombe gives it the title suite, the somewhat modest connotations of that particular designation are not entirely applicable, for this comes across as a rather more ambitious work.  While plenty of the composer’s characteristic tunefulness is still in evidence, this time he shows us a new side to his music by introducing passages of flashy – albeit essentially superficial – pianistic virtuosity.  Such episodes were, of course, virtually de rigueur in the age when audiences swooned at the pyrotechnics of self-promoting virtuoso performers touring the concert halls of Europe.  Oddly enough, Isidor Philipp, the work’s dedicatee who went on to make it something of a personal party piece, was more associated with the subtler style of Debussy.  Nevertheless, he was also a jobbing concert pianist who needed to make a living and, as a contemporary review of a performance of the suite that’s quoted in the CD booklet makes clear, was, when required, able to raise the roof with the best of them.  If, once again, we must resign ourselves to the fact that we probably won’t ever hear it in a concert hall, Lacombe’s suite would certainly find an appropriate stylistic home as a filler on a disc in Hyperion’s trailblazing series of Romantic piano concertos.  

The Rapsodie sur des airs du Pays d’Oc is, at less than eight minutes in length, the shortest piece included on this disc.  After a confidently expressed and attention-grabbing allegro giocoso opening, it skilfully incorporates references to several rather attractive folk tunes, all originating from the south of France.  None of them outstays its welcome and Lacombe keeps the piece moving along very nicely.  The easy-on-the-ear Rapsodie makes an effective opening track on this disc and, even though it was originally written for a very specific occasion – a regional musical congress – would certainly make an attractive curtain-raiser for an appropriately constructed programme in any concert hall.

As I have already mentioned, there are no other recordings of any of these works.  Even if there had been, however, I doubt whether these performances would have suffered in comparison.  Martin Yates and the BBC Concert Orchestra sound entirely at home in Lacombe’s musical world and play with great style and commitment.  Soloists Peter Francomb (French horn) and Victor Sangiorgio (piano) make the most of the opportunities offered to them and deliver committed, confident and stylish accounts of what were presumably unfamiliar scores.  

The Watford Colosseum – previously the Watford Town Hall Assembly Rooms – has a long history as a recording venue.  It is, moreover, one that’s very familiar to the BBC Concert Orchestra which regularly gives live performances there for BBC radio.  I do not know whether the engineers who produced this recording are BBC staff (the disc’s billing informs us rather vaguely that it has been “produced in association with BBC Radio 3”), but they have, in any case, captured the performances in attractively warm yet very clear sound.

At the beginning of this review I speculated that many readers might not have heard of Lacombe or his music.  His name certainly meant nothing to me before I encountered this disc.  In France, however, he is presumably better known, for Mr Simeone’s booklet notes refer in passing to a 1924 biography by Léon Moulin and suggest that there has been at least one other.  They also mention a much more recent study by Martial Andrieu, published in 2013, that, by its very subtitle  le testament musical d’un grand symphoniste français – suggests that Lacombe might be a composer of hitherto unsuspected significance.  There is also, I note, a Société des amis de Paul Lacombe, the members of which are dedicated to preserving his memory and promoting his works.  Listening to this new, enjoyable and very welcome disc, I can entirely see their point.

Rob Maynard

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