SAINT-SAËNS: Integral Cello Works = Concerto No. 1 for Cello and Orchestra in A Minor, Op. 33; Concerto No. 2 for Cello and Orchestra in D Minor, Op. 119; Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op. 123; Cello Sonata No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 32; Romance, Op. 36; Romance, Op. 51; Allegro appassionato, Op. 43; “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals; Chant Saphique, Op. 91; Gavotte, Op. Posth.; Suite, Op. 16 – Luigi Piovano, cello / Luisa Prayer, piano/ Nazzareno Carusi, piano (Sonata No. 2) / Orchestra del Teatro Marrucino / Piero Bellugi – Eloquentia EL 1024 (2 CDs), 76:06, 68:42 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****1/2:
Given the generous timing of these two discs, it’s probably idle to quibble over what “integral” means in the case of Saint-Saëns’ works featuring cello. This collection leaves out the Romance for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 67, which Saint-Saëns originally wrote for solo horn, as well as Prière for cello or violin and organ, which is admittedly not often included in such collections. Also missing is La Muse et le Poète for violin, cello, and orchestra, an especially tender creation of Saint-Saëns’ later years. Again, since this work includes another solo instrument, it can be left out on technical grounds, I suppose, though it’s worth knowing. Incidentally, Steven Isserlis’s two discs of Saint-Saëns cello music on RCA do manage to include these missing works (passing over, alas, the Suite Op. 16, with its gorgeous Romance), and the discs are a bargain at mid-price. But I don’t mean to slight the new Eloquentia recording, which is a worthy competitor, thanks to the truly eloquent playing of cellist and conductor Luigi Piovano.
He’s possessed of a big rich tone; a golden ear as far as intonation is concerned; and technique formidable enough to be able to issue Saint-Saëns’ two virtuoso concerti in live recordings that are as impeccable as any studio renditions you might hear. That’s especially remarkable given the difficulties of the Second Concerto, whose solo part is so complex that the composer had to write it across two staves. The Second Concerto is nowhere near as popular as the First, but in such a compelling performance as this one, its merits are evident. As often happens in Saint-Saëns’ concerted works, the finale represents a falling-off of inspiration, but its hushed slow section, which follows the opening Allegro moderato e maestoso attaca, is one of the composer’s loveliest, and the cyclic nature of the concerto’s musical argument makes its structure both formidably tight and easy to grasp.
Piovano may lend even more welcome advocacy to the Second Sonata. Again, it’s not as often heard as Saint-Saëns’ passionate First Sonata, but it’s even more worthy of a place in the repertoire than the concerto. Written in 1905, it reflects the growing conservatism that isolated the composer in his later years. Yet it is beautifully written and has a number of appeals, including a cleverly conceived scherzo-cum-variations second movement, a melting slow movement, and a graciously flowing finale. It has consciously archaic gestures, looking back to the music of Rameau, whose Pièces de Clavecin en Concert Saint-Saëns edited, pioneering the renewed interest in Baroque music that would lead to the revival of many neglected masters.
The short works on the bill of fare are gracious examples of Saint-Saëns’ art that just don’t manage to grab the attention as do the short works for violin and orchestra, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and Havanaise. All, that is, except what is probably Saint-Saëns’ best-known work, Le Cygne (“The Swan”). Piovano sings it with a hushed sense of near-reverence that makes it seem almost a statement of religious faith. Almost.
Piovano gets fine support from all of his accompanists, especially Luisa Payer, who tackles Saint-Saëns’ often difficult piano writing with aplomb; a superb pianist, Saint-Saëns demands almost as much from the accompanist as he does from the soloist. The Orchestra del Teatro Marrucino deserves praise too. They turn in passionately involved readings that probably have something—but not everything—to do with the presence of a live audience. In the concerti, the sound is close and rather dry; I would have preferred more air around both the soloist and the orchestra, though the recording does pack a lot of punch. The recordings of the pieces with piano accompaniment are equally powerful but have a finer sense of the hall. They’re very attractive.
In fact, the whole enterprise is so successful that I have no reservations at all in recommending it. Even if you have other recordings of these works in your collection, try to hear Luigi Piovano’s. You won’t be disappointed.
The unifying purpose of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn…