SAINT-SAËNS: Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 61; La muse et le poète, Op. 132; Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33 – Renaud Capuçon, violin /Gautier Capuçon, cello/ Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France /Lionel Bringuier – Erato 50999 934134 2 8, 65:48 [10/29/13] ****:

Unfortunately for his posthumous reputation, Saint-Saëns lived long enough to provide some unflattering anecdotes in what should have been his dotage. (As it turns out, however, the composer continued to write compelling music until the year of his death at the age of 86.) Item 1: Saint-Saëns’ curmudgeonly assertion that he remained in Paris just “to speak ill of [Debussy’s] Pelléas et Mélisande.” (You can imagine that Debussy had equally unflattering things to say about Saint-Saëns’ by-then passé music.) Item 2: The old gent supposedly stormed out of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, incensed that the Russian had forced the bassoon to play above its tessitura at the very opening of the work. Item 3: When Saint-Saëns bragged that he was helping the war effort through composing, Ravel quipped that he’d make a more valuable contribution by working in a munitions factory.

All of this sad disrespect and seeming obsolescence shouldn’t have been suffered by a composer who pioneered the Lisztian tone poem in France and whose Samson et Dalila smacked too much of Wagner for Parisian tastes (and otherwise offended by treating a biblical subject operatically). However, even Saint-Saëns’ later detractors Debussy and Ravel acknowledged the older composer’s contribution to French music, and Ravel paid him the compliment of saying that he, Ravel, had modeled his Piano Concerto in G on the concerti of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. Imagine, Mozart and Saint-Saëns mentioned in the same breath!

Such an association wouldn’t have been out of the question at the height of Saint-Saëns’ fame. And like a lot of Romantic composers who took a drubbing in the early years of the twentieth century, the Frenchman has been on the comeback trail for years, with over 1,500 recordings of his music listed on His concerti were always held in high regard by performers because of their idiomatic and absolutely virtuosic solo parts, his Second Piano Concerto played about as often in public today as any other concerto. Not far behind is the Cello Concerto No. 1, of which there are quite a number of excellent recordings in the catalog, my favorite being the one János Starker made way back in the 1962 (still available on a three-channel Mercury SACD).

How does Gautier Capuçon’s interpretation stack up against this classic competition? Pretty well, actually. Right from the crackling start of the work, with its big orchestral chord followed by a declamatory high E on the cello, both cellist and orchestra are very much on their toes. The tenderness of the second melody is not slighted, though here and especially in the segue this melody provides to the second movement, played attaca, Capuçon’s rendition may be a bit saccharine for some tastes, including mine. But then the slow movement is a dainty thing, somewhat out of place after the Sturm und Drang of the opening. The fiery Molto allegro conclusion, including the moments of respite along the way, are nicely done, except for some agogic distortions in the final bit of quietude before the whirlwind ending.

This is a good performance, but overall I’m more pleased with Renaud Capuçon’s reading of the Violin Concerto No. 3, which though much recorded isn’t heard often in concert anymore. Part of the problem is, again, a slow movement lacking in sincerity; it’s lightweight enough to sound like an extended salon piece. But then the critical gripe against this concerto has been that neither of the two concluding movements matches the quality of the powerful opening movement. In the finale, the G-major melody at the heart of the piece may indeed have more than a tinge of sentimentality, but Saint-Saëns redeems himself when he gives it a brassy chorale-like treatment toward the end. Alas, some almost comic byplay between the solo violin and the winds in the coda is a letdown after all this grandeur. And so despite very fine things, the concerto falls short of the stature of Romantic staples of the genre from Brahms, Tchaikovsky, et al.

It’s good to report, then, that Capuçon and conductor Lionel Bringuier manage to accentuate the positive and make the best of the more problematic pages in the work. This is a very attractive performance, with a hard-hitting opening and a finale that builds powerfully to the aforementioned climax. And the slow movement is nicely played, Capuçon’s tone firm and even throughout, helping to tone down the schmaltz.

La muse et le poète is a thoroughly lovely work whose only fault is when it was written, 1910, several decades beyond its use-by date. So just imagine the piece was composed the same year as the Violin Concerto No. 3 (1880), and then savor this sweet but slightly melancholy confection, beautifully written for the two instruments. The Capuçons play it lovingly, getting fine support from the orchestra.

Everyone involved receives first-rate support from the engineers, who provide a realistic perspective without undue prominence given to the soloists. The orchestra registers with impact and detail throughout. So while Capuçon and Bringuier’s performance doesn’t challenge my loyalty to the Starker/Skrowaczewski Cello Concerto, the other performances on the disc are about as fine as any I’ve heard, and the whole can be confidently recommended.

—Lee Passarella