Notes and Editorial Reviews
Suite in d for Violin and Piano,
Violin Sonata No. 2,
(version for violin and piano)
Fanny Clamagirand (vn); Vanya Cohen (pn)
NAXOS 8.572751 (67:43)
Here is Volume 2 in Fanny Clamagirand and Vanya Cohen’s survey of works for violin and piano by Saint-Saëns. Its predecessor received high praise from me in 37:2, not just for the excellence of this duo’s playing, but for presenting a program of some of the composer’s smaller, less well known, and utterly delightful pieces.
In that review I boldly and perhaps foolhardily stated that “All in all, not counting the two sonatas, Saint-Saëns composed no more than six opus numbers originally scored for violin and piano, and on the present disc [re: Volume 1] we have all but one of them, the
in B Minor of 1859.” Well, if that were true, then what have we here on this new release? Four more works, and still not accounted for is the
. Notice that I didn’t count one of the headnote titles as a fifth entry; for surely, I thought to myself, when you have to turn to “The Swan” from Saint-Saëns’s
The Carnival of the Animals
, in a violin and piano transcription to fill out your disc, you’ve really exhausted the available material. But how could I have claimed there was nothing more beyond the
to warrant a second volume, when obviously here are four more works for violin and piano?
Well, I’m relieved to say that I wasn’t wrong after all, at least not entirely, for besides the Second Sonata, which I acknowledged and accounted for in my previous review, there is only one other work on this disc originally scored for violin and piano I failed to note, and that is the
(Unfinished Sonata), which exists in a circa 1850 manuscript. Saint-Saëns would have been 15 at the time he wrote it. There are two movements, the first in F Major with a substantial 142 bars, the second in A Minor with only 58 bars. There is no title page, no signature, no dedication, and tempo indications appear only in the violin part, not in the full violin and piano score. Having just listened to it, I can tell you that there’s very little about it that is recognizable as a work by Saint-Saëns. It does, however, sound a lot like Mendelssohn.
, op. 48, is indeed a work for violin; there’s no disputing that. But it was originally written in 1874 for violin and orchestra. The album note doesn’t say whether the arrangement for violin and piano heard here was made by the composer himself or someone else. If the
is a work for violin, but one whose piano part has been reduced and arranged from its original orchestral guise, one could say that the Suite in D Minor is a work originally conceived for piano as one of its two instruments, but that the other instrument in this case was originally a cello. According to the program note, when the piece was published in 1862, it appeared with an alternative instrumentation for violin—more than likely, I’d guess, a creation of the publisher rather than by the composer. In any case, I’m not aware of a recording other than this one of the Suite in its violin and piano version, which doesn’t mean, of course, that one doesn’t exist. If you love Saint-Saëns, you have to love this work; it bears all of the composer’s recognizable fingerprints—the curvaceous melodies, seductive harmonies, catchy rhythms, and the disarming treachery of Delilah tempting Samson.
is an adaption for violin and piano of the third of Saint-Saëns’s Six Bagatelles for Solo Piano, op. 3. Published in 1855, they were the first of the composer’s solo piano pieces to appear in print. I don’t think the piece will eclipse Massenet’s famous
, but it’s a sweet, somewhat innocent-sounding thing, as its origin as a musical bauble would suggest.
Saint-Saëns was a young 61 in 1896 when he put his hand to composing a companion to his very popular Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Minor. But the Violin Sonata No. 2 in E? Major never achieved equal status with the earlier work or elicited much interest from violinists. It still languishes today, with fewer than half-a-dozen recordings compared to the D-Minor Sonata’s approximately three dozen. On a first hearing, it’s easy to understand the relative lack of enthusiasm audiences and players have shown for the piece. It presents an engaging but fairly easygoing or laid-back countenance, lacking the immediate sense of dramatic urgency and emotional passion of its older sibling. Moreover, aside from the fact that there’s little about the melodic material that sticks in the memory, the virtuosic brilliance of the piece is of a somewhat lower voltage than that in the D-Minor opus. One finds that especially surprising, considering that Saint-Saëns composed the E?-Major Sonata for none other than perhaps the most spectacular violin virtuoso of the day, Pablo de Sarasate, who, together with the composer, debuted the work at the Salle Pleyel in 1892.
That said, the violin part is, by no means, a technical walk in the park; there are some very demanding-sounding passages, and the beauties of the work—subtler than those of the more extroverted, exhibitionistic D-Minor Sonata—reveal themselves to the attentive listener on repeated hearings.
And then there’s Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” to close out the disc. The piece has become so detached from its original context in
The Carnival of the Animals
, and it’s just oh-so-pretty, that the tongue-in-cheek humor of it has been lost. Saint-Saëns first met Tchaikovsky in Moscow in 1875, while the Russian composer was working on his ballet
. The two men instantly struck up a friendship and shared their fetish for cross-dressing when Saint-Saëns at least—I don’t know about Tchaikovsky—donned a ballerina’s tutu, and together they performed a mock ballet. Ten years later, in 1886, Saint-Saëns penned the
, in which “The Swan” is the penultimate movement. Given everything we know about the composer’s—let’s call them epicene—episodes, it’s hard to believe that “The Swan” wasn’t intended as a good-natured, collegial sendup of his friend’s
. And indeed, famed ballerina Anna Pavolva, working with choreographer Michel Fokine, immortalized Saint-Saens’s piece in dance as the dying swan.
If Fanny Clamagirand impressed me in Volume 1 of Saint-Saëns’s mostly music transcribed for violin and piano, I’m awed by her in Volume 2. She has technique to burn, her high notes are silver-toned, her intonation is true; she plays with high spirits, vivacity, and panache in the up-tempo, upbeat music, and with serious, sensitive, and affectionate demeanor in the slower, emotive music. Pianist Vanya Cohen is Clamagirand’s coequal in every way. The recording leaves nothing to be desired, and the program contains over an hour’s worth of wonderful works, some of them not heard that often, especially in violin and piano versions.
My only question is, will there be a Volume 3, and if so, what will it contain? The rarely performed or recorded
, once thought to be lost, is still missing. The piece is actually a preliminary working draft of the last movement of Saint-Saëns’s B-Minor Violin Concerto (No. 3). Meanwhile, this new release at hand is enthusiastically recommended, and without a single reservation.
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