SAINT-SAENS: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Major; Violin Con. No. 2 in C Major; Violin Con. No. 3 in b minor – Andrew Wan, violin/ Orch. Symphonique de Montreal/ Kent Nagano – Analekta

SAINT-SAENS: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Major, Op. 20; Violin Concerto No. 2 in C Major, Op. 58; Violin Concerto No. 3 in b minor, Op. 61 – Andrew Wan, violin/ Orch. Symphonique de Montreal/ Kent Nagano – Analekta AN 2 8770, 74:40  (11/13/15)  [Distr. by E1] ****:

Violinist Andrew Wan, who appears in live concerts (26-29 November 2014) with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, happens to serve as the ensemble’s concertmaster, a post he assumed in 2008. Together with Kent Nagano – conductor of the Montreal Symphony since 2006 – they perform the three concertos for violin by Camille Saint-Saens, of which the Third in b minor (1890) has long dominated the standard repertory.   For the purpose of these inscriptions, Mr. Wan performs on a lovely-toned 1744 Michel ’Angelo Bergonzi instrument.

The triptych opens with the 1859 Concertpiece, Op. 20, a “concerto” dedicated to Sarasate and actually the second of the Saint-Saens’ concertos in order of composition.  In one movement, the piece finds its immortality less in the motor elements of the outer sections but in the Andante espressivo central part, an exquisite aria that quite sails into immortality, first made apparent to me by Ruggiero Ricci and Max Rudolf.  Wan’s plays the work – in fact, all three – as a labor of love, rather showcasing his broad vibrato for expressive effect. While dedicated to violinist Achille Dien, the Concerto No. 2 in C (1858) certainly assumes Paganini’s formulas – especially the punctuated ostinato opening – as the means of its expressive eloquence.   The form borrows from Liszt and Schubert, falling into two sections, the first movement, Allegro moderato e maestoso, subdivided into three parts. This movement luxuriates in large bravura passages, animated and resonant. Why the second movement Andante espessivo, with its alluring wind and harp accompaniment (Jennifer Swartz), has not caught the imagination of more concert performances remains a mystery.  Its color, which includes some lofty, militant riffs, enjoys the same sensuous character – listen to the oboe soli delivered by Theodore Baskin – as the best moments from Samson et Dalila. A dancing Allegro scherzando quasi allegretto leads to the spirited Allegro vivace in the composer’s typical light fashion, a combination of Paganini and contrapuntal Mendelssohn.  The performance generates thunderous applause from the otherwise silent audience, and this reading may well provide the standard reference for quite some time.

The b minor Concerto first exercised its fascination upon me – albeit in abridged form – via Zino Francescatti and Dimitri Mitropoulos.  Later readings by the likes of Milstein, Haendel, and Schwalbe merely deepened my respect for this angular, dramatic work whose 6/8 middle movement – Andantino quasi allegretto – plays like an innocent barcarolle lifted from the French paysage.  Violinist Wan lingers tenderly on the various first-movement phrase lengths with their florid roulades and extensions high on the E string, rampant with double stops. Nagano moves his own forces with pungent gusto, building to an urgent climax that has the audience murmuring to itself for more. The flute solo (Timothy Hutchins), in concert with the oboe and Wan, weave a captivating serenade for the second movement, moving to Wan’s striking cadenza that opens the Molto moderato e maestoso last movement, a segue to a tune in triplets, and then another of those Saint-Saens hymnal or doxology-like themes at which he excels.

Recording engineers Carl Talbot and Jeremy Tusz have delivered the concert experience in graphic colors, veritably as close as we might have been to the exciting concerts themselves.

—Gary Lemco

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