Notes and Editorial Reviews
Cello Sonata No. 1 in c.
op. 36 (trans. Saint-Saëns).
Suite for Cello and Piano,
Carnival of the Animals:
Bertrand (vc); Pascal Amoyel (pn)
HARMONIA MUNDI 901962 (68:45)
Suddenly, it seems, Saint-Saëns is back in vogue. Not that he was ever out of it, but until recently, record companies focused mainly on his blockbuster “Organ” Symphony and a handful of other popular orchestral works. In just the last few months, however, the composer’s chamber music, especially the piano trios and cello sonatas, has been vying for attention as a number of new and excellent recordings have appeared. Joining them is this current release which gives us a mixed bouquet of Saint-Saëns’s works for cello and piano.
Because of its proximate release date, the new recording with Emmanuelle Bertrand and Pascal Amoyel is immediately thrown into competition in the Sonata and the Suite against Maria Kliegel and François-Joël Thiollier, whose recording for Naxos was submitted for review in 30:6. In the Sonata, the two performances differ by only three seconds—21:49 for Kliegel/Thiollier, 21:52 for Bertrand/Amoyel. But timings don’t tell the whole story. Bertrand and Amoyel invest the piece with greater thrust and forward drive, perhaps a desirable thing if you see the Sonata as a descendant of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and you tend to agree with Saint-Saëns’s contemporary critics that he was in thrall to German models. I think I prefer, if only marginally, Kliegel and Thiollier, who don’t go quite as far in “de-Frenchifying” the composer’s Gallic reserve. Bertrand and Amoyel, at least in the Sonata, are a bit too driven and aggressive for my taste.
(“Prayer”) is a fairly late piece dating from 1919. Saint-Saëns dedicated it to the young French cellist, André Hekking. True to its title, it’s a quiet, plaintive dialogue between the two instruments without much of a distinctive melodic outline.
—the earlier of the two dating from around the same time as the Sonata (1874) and originally published for horn with an alternate version for cello by the composer himself—are essentially salon pieces, lightweight by intent and very pretty if a bit sentimental sounding. Think Reynaldo Hahn. The Gavotte and Tarentelle exhibit two other sides of Saint-Saëns’s multifaceted musical personality—the former, his use of Baroque models to put antique appliqués on Romantic character pieces; the latter, his penchant for virtuosic display pieces with a Gypsy flavor (e.g. the
Introduction and Rondo capriccioso
). Both the Gavotte and Tarentelle are effective and well played, though I could imagine the latter’s Presto being played faster and tossed off with more reckless abandon than Bertrand seems willing to dare.
Despite its first movement title of Prélude, there is little in the style of the op. 16 Suite to suggest that this is one of Saint-Saëns’s neo-Baroque creations. Not to diminish or demean its appeal—its beauties, particularly the exquisite Sérénade, are undisputed—each of its five movements could easily be a salon piece on its own.
“The Swan,” a movement from
Carnival of the Animals
, has become such a cliché it’s hard to take it seriously, and it wasn’t meant to be. Originally scored for two pianos and cello, the version heard here for a single piano and cello is closer to the original than is the later orchestral version. Bertrand’s and Amoyel’s performance glides smoothly onto a pond already inhabited by a 200-plus-strong flock of the molting feathered things.
For a diverse sampling of Saint-Saëns’s works for cello and piano in excellent, though not walk-away-with-first-prize performances, the current release is easily recommended. In the Sonata and Suite, as previously stated, I lean slightly towards Kliegel and Thiollier. For all of the other items on the disc, with the exception of the Tarentelle, which he doesn’t include, I’d give the palm to Steven Isserlis on RCA. Harmonia Mundi’s production and sound, as always, are exemplary.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
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