SAINT-SAËNS String Quartets: Nos. 1, 2 • Fine Arts Qrt • NAXOS 8572424 (62: 48)
I can’t recall a single chamber music concert I’ve ever attended at which either of Camille Saint-Saëns’s two string quartets was programmed; at present, ArkivMusic lists only three entries, including this new one. Granted, there are, or used to be, more—one, for example, by the Medici String Quartet on Koch Schwann, reviewed by Robert McColley in Fanfare 21:6; anotherRead more by the Quartetto d’Archi on Dynamic, reviewed by Ian Lace in 21:5; and still another by the Miami Quartet on Conifer, reviewed in 21:4 by Adrian Corleonis, who in a single brief paragraph dismissed both the music and the playing of it, but complimented the booklet’s author for his notes. All three of those reviews appeared in 1998. Since then, Saint-Saëns’s quartets haven’t been heard from again in these pages.
Saint-Saëns came to the string quartet late in life, at least by the measure of most composers’ life spans—he was 64 when he wrote his first quartet in 1899 and 83 when he wrote his second in 1918—so one might wonder if by the turn of the century he wasn’t a spent force, having already written most, if not all, of the major works by which he is known. But there are exceptions—flashes of his former self—in the Second Cello Concerto (1902) and the Second Cello Sonata (1905), in the Cinq poèmes de Ronsard (1907–21), and surely in the final triptych of wind sonatas (1921). In the last 20 years of his life, Saint-Saëns actually wrote a great deal, but much of it—songs, choral pieces, incidental music, dramatic scenas, and a miscellany of smaller instrumental and chamber works—has not been recorded.
Other than his admiration for violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, to whom the first quartet is dedicated, it’s hard to know what prompted Saint-Saëns to suddenly decide he needed to add his two cents to the string quartet literature. He’d come this far without feeling any particular urge to grace the medium with a work of his own, so why now?
The booklet note tantalizingly suggests a connection to Vincent d’Indy, who author Keith Anderson speculates may have expressed some interest in a classically styled string quartet by Saint-Saëns to use as a model of cyclic form in his composition class. In the end, however, Anderson claims d’Indy rejected the idea in favor of the far less than classically styled quartet written 10 years earlier by his teacher, César Franck. That Saint-Saëns openly despised Franck, d’Indy, and the whole Schola Cantorum circle, and that no doubt the feelings on the other side were mutual, makes such a scenario seem improbable.
Saint-Saëns was incapable of writing anything that sounded less than professionally polished and gratifying to the ear, but considering the history of the string quartet up to the time he addressed it in 1899, the E-Minor work strikes this listener as much ado about very little, a tornado in a thimble. It was obviously written with Ysaÿe in mind, for the first violin part dominates with virtuosic passagework more appropriate for a concerto titled “in modo meshugante.” The first movement, almost 12 minutes in duration, is practically a nonstop, hold-on-to-your-seat ride in a fast and furious machine, and it’s not only the first violin that gets a workout. This may partially explain why more ensembles haven’t taken up the piece—too much sweat, too little payback. The antecedent for this type of string quartet writing may be the quatuors brilliants of Louis Spohr.
The scherzo-like second movement continues in the whirling Dervish-like vein for another six and a half minutes. Not until the third movement does Saint-Saëns provide a sense of real repose in a Molto adagio strongly reminiscent of the parallel movement in Beethoven’s op. 135. But the last movement, in unrelieved minor mode, returns to the ranting and raving of the first movement. One half-expects the musicians to drop dead after the final chord, but the members of the Fine Arts Quartet live on to give us the composer’s second effort in the medium.
The G-Major Quartet finds Saint-Saëns in lighter mood and less garrulous, the work being in three movements instead of four. The first movement, which the composer described as representing youth, has a drawing-room, classical refinement to it that recalls in spirit, if not in letter, the style of Mozart. Always cautious about exposing his private emotions in his music, Saint-Saëns called the slow movement of the quartet “deadly dull, as an Adagio should be,” masking what he really felt when earlier he’d said that if the first movement was “youth” the second movement was the saddest thing of all, “the loss of it.” The quartet concludes with a relatively lighthearted romp that conceals a good deal of compositional sophistication, including a neatly worked-out fugal episode.
Right up to the bitter end, Saint-Saëns maintained his classical-romantic bonafides. To listen to the second of these two quartets, you would never know that Debussy had happened or that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had premiered on Saint-Saëns’s home turf. But then the composer’s history as a serial hater of everyone and everything “new” in music is well known. Sometimes it seems that the only one he didn’t hate was Dalila, his French poodle, so he couldn’t have been all bad.
Founded in 1946, the Fine Arts Quartet is one of America’s longest-surviving chamber ensembles. In 33:2, I gave a rave recommendation to the group’s Naxos recording of Fauré’s two piano quintets in which they were joined by pianist Cristina Ortiz, a rave, by the way, which Corleonis frowned upon three issues later in his review of the Fine Arts’ performance of Franck’s string quartet and piano quintet. Not only did he pan that release, but he was quite outspoken in stating that I mightn’t have been so enthusiastic about the ensemble’s Fauré if I’d ever heard the Parennin’s or Via Nova’s performances.
Just to set the record straight, both of those recordings are a permanent part of my collection and I’ve heard them many times. While I respect Corleonis’s opinions and occasionally even quote him, I stand by my review of the Fine Arts’ Fauré and I offer an equally strong endorsement of the ensemble’s new Saint-Saëns CD. Competing versions, as noted at the outset, are few, and the only other one I’ve known previously is that by the Viotti String Quartet on an Apex disc. Comparing the two, the Fine Arts Quartet emerges as the more technically secure and poised, especially in the extremely taxing E-Minor Quartet, and the sound of the ensemble as it’s captured by Naxos is full and vibrant. Saint-Saëns’s string quartets are not going to alter opinions of the composer for good or for ill. But I will admit, they’re kind of fun to listen to, especially the wild First Quartet, and for now at least, I personally know of no other ensemble that plays them better than the Fine Arts Quartet.
Excellent quartet - music and musicianshipJuly 6, 2012By Deborah M. (Honolulu, HI)See All My Reviews"That Saint-Saens wrote his 1st quartet when he was 64 and second at 83 year of age, is incredible. The beauty of the interplay between the melodies in each of the string parts is what attracted our quartet to this music. You do not have to play the quartet to enjoy the music, but it definitly helps!"Report Abuse