SAINT-SAENS: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; La muse et le poete; Allegro appassionato; Le cygne from Carnaval of the Animals – Natalie Clein, c./ Antje Weithaas, v./ Julia Lynch & Judith Keaney, pianos/BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Andrew Manze – Hyperion

SAINT-SAENS: Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33; Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 119; La muse et le poete, Op. 132; Allegro appassionato, Op. 43; Le cygne from Carnaval of the Animals – Natalie Clein, cello/ Antje Weithaas, violin/ Julia Lynch & Judith Keaney, piano/BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Andrew Manze – Hyperion CDA68002, 59:59 (9/1/14) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

The “Romantic Cello Concerto Vol. 5” features Heinrich Schiff protégé Natalie Clein, former BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1994. She and conductor Andrew Manze (rec. 12-13 June 2013) collaborate in the music of Camille Saint-Saens, whose 1873 Cello Concerto in A Minor has enjoyed its status as a popular staple of the repertory. The 1902 D Minor Concerto – in a deliberately “antique” style – has never achieved a similar popularity in the form of the success, serving as a “test piece” for eminently gifted virtuosi. The lyrical surprise comes in the form of the Andante sostenuto in the latter part of the first movement, which has sub-divided according to the Lisztian principles we see in the Organ Symphony. The delicacy of the scoring, especially in the winds, adds to the mystery of this ingratiating concerto’s neglect.

Clein attacks the First Cello Concerto with fleet immediacy, and Manze, too, hustles the lyrically busy and declamatory lines with gusto. A fervently mercurial piece, the music embraces a panoply of colors, some of which express a bittersweet melancholy.  After exulting in her rich low register, Clein moves, with Manze’s delicate accompaniment, into the second movement minuet, a moment of refined Classical poise. The last movement gathers a more tempestuous momentum, a dazzling display of colors – including Clein’s high flute tone – and song, typical of the composer’s best gifts.

The Second Concerto remains less familiar to listeners. The soloist for whom it was written, Joseph Hollman, had proved an energetic, muscular player, though Saint-Saëns seems to reject the overt bravura and the suave style of the First Concerto. When Saint-Saëns’ pupil and friend Gabriel Fauré chose the concerto as a Conservatoire test piece, the composer expressed his gratitude, but admitted “it will never be as well-known as the first; it’s too difficult.” Clein negotiates the concerto’s various challenges: its many solo passages, its martial, first-movement huge leaps and runs that require two staves to accommodate them, and a good deal of double stops. The lean compositional style of the piece, too, catches us off guard, in that the music sounds like a cello-dominated cassation or wind serenade whose model often points at Bach cross-fertilized by Mozart.

The other ambitious piece from Saint-Saens’ late period, La muse et le poete (1910), proceeds a a colloquy between equally matched voices, taken from a 1909 piano trio which Saint-Saens orchestrated for a premiere with Eugene Ysaye and Joseph Hollman. Tenderly lyrical – especially as the harp illuminates the string colors – the natural melodic lilt more than once reminds us of Bruch, without the sense of “academic” accomplishment. Antje Weithaas provides an equally passionate violin part, explosive enough in tandem with Clein to make us wish the Brahms Double Concerto were next in the album. The last pages fairly burst with electric energy, a bristling and mesmerizing finale rife with pageantry.

The Allegro appassionato (1876) buzzes forward in the manner of a gypsy rondo, a facile romp whose color shifts keep us alert and attuned to Clein’s infectious applications of touch and ripe tone. At last, the ubiquitous Swan of the 1886 Carnaval of the Animals, here achieving a liquid status worthy to draw Lohengrin’s water chariot. Recorded sound, courtesy of Arne Akselberg, will lull all listeners to embark on the entire journey many times.

—Gary Lemco

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