Saint-Saens was a remarkable artist, scholar, teacher and cultural ambassador—a true Renaissance man. He made his debut as a pianist at 10, served as the organist at the Madeleine in Paris for 20 years, taught at the Ecole Niedermeyer, where his pupils included Gabriel Faure, and managed to write on scientific and historical topics between tours to South America, the U.S. and Asia. In the midst of this activity, he also managed to write wonderful music.
While a great deal is known about Camille Saint-Saens, relatively little of his prolific output is actually performed and recorded. Music lovers are treated to frequent performances of the third (“organ”) symphony, the third violin concerto, the Carnival of the Animals, and popular works for violin and cello such as the Havanaise and Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, all delightful music with lovely melodies and memorable tunes. Unfortunately, Saint Saens’ chamber music has not fared as well in the concert hall or on records, and has been unjustly neglected. With any luck, this recording will rectify the situation and will introduce a new audience to music of grace, color, charm and wit.
Followers of the Nash Ensemble will recognize qualities that are common to their many recordings, including traversals of the Poulenc and Vaughn Williams chamber music. These include clarity of texture, seamless and near perfect balance of instrumental parts, and a stylistic affinity for the music at hand. In particular, Ian Brown – the pianist featured in all eight pieces- plays with elegance and sophistication. Like a great song accompanist, he shows sensitivity and restraint with beautiful pedaling and clear articulation. The other soloists, including flutist Phillippa Davies, bassoonist Ursula Leveaux, violinist Marianne Thorsen, clarinetist Richard Hosford and oboist Gareth Hulse, play with passion and flair in both sonatas written for their instruments and in larger ensemble works. Their performances are expressive, impassioned, and personal throughout. The recorded sound is typical of Hyperion: clean (if a bit on the crystalline side) with a close perspective and soundstage appropriate to the size of the performing ensemble. The recording does not draw attention to microphone placement or hall acoustics and the natural tonality of instruments comes across clearly.
Highlights of the set are plentiful. The opening work is the Piano Septet, which marries both classical and romantic sensibilities. Of particular note are the Andante and the Gavotte et Final, complete with horn calls and march-like rhythms. A rollicking ride, indeed, reminiscent of the Dvorak opus 81 piano quintet and Faure’s piano quartets, yet preceding both by a generation. The Tarantelle in A minor, often played by full orchestra, is carried off with élan by trio for clarinet, flute and piano. Saint Saens shows his love for bel canto effects, trills, and color here, often demanding that soloists play simultaneously softly and at high pitch, as the pieces are written with rather broad tessitura. These qualities are accentuated in the sonatas for bassoon, oboe and clarinet, all enjoyable and worthy of repeated listening.
With each playing of this recording, I marvel at the variety and imagination of the works and wish for opportunities to hear them played in concert. Great fun, and highly recommended.
— Harry Zweben