Saint-Saëns's Cello Concertos
The Gramophone Choice
Cello Concerto No 2*
Coupled with La muse et le poète, Op 132*/**. Romance in E flat, Op 67*(orch cpsr). Cello Sonata No 2 in F, Op 123***
Steven Isserlis vc **Joshua Bell vn ***Pascal Devoyon pf *North German Radio Symphony Orchestra / Christoph Eschenbach
RCA Red Seal 09026 63518-2 (76‘ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Steven Isserlis follows up his earlier outstanding release of Saint-Saëns’s cello music (see below) with another that’s even more revelatory. This disc concentrates on the more neglected cello works that Saint-Saëns wrote towards the end of his long career. It’s true that neither Concerto nor Sonata quite matches its predecessor in memorable melody but Isserlis, in powerful, imaginative performances, brings out other qualities to show how unjust their neglect is. That’s particularly true of the Sonata, which, vividly supported by Pascal Devoyon, rivals Brahms’s magnificent Second Cello Sonata in heroic power and scale. At 33 minutes, this is easily the longest of Saint-Saëns’s cello works, its ambitious tone of voice instantly established (as it is in the Brahms) and then masterfully sustained throughout the first movement. The second-movement Scherzo, almost as long and far more than just an interlude, is a sharply original set of variations, leading to a songful slow movement which in turn leads up to a passionate climax. Then in the surgingly energetic finale, both Isserlis and Devoyon articulate the rapid passagework with thrilling clarity.
The cello-writing in the Second Concerto is rather less grateful, with its thorny passages of double-stopping, but the two-movement structure characteristic of Saint-Saëns works well, with each divided clearly in two, Allegro into Andante, Scherzo into cadenza and reprise of Allegro. Making light of technical problems, Isserlis is persuasive both in the bravura Allegros and in the hushed meditation of the slow section. Yet neither he nor Eschenbach can quite overcome the truncated feeling at the end, when the reprise of the opening material is so short.
The Romance is an adaptation of the slow fourth movement of the Cello Suite, Op 16, a charming piece which Saint-Saëns reworked several times. Yet best of all is the lyrical dialogue of La muse et le poète. Inspired by Alfred de Musset’s poem La nuit de mai, it opens with Saint-Saëns at his most luscious, reflecting de Musset’s role as a hothouse romantic among French poets. It then moves seamlessly through contrasted episodes, with the violin (superbly played by Joshua Bell) representing the muse and the cello as the poet himself. A generous collection, warmly recorded.
Cello Concerto No 1
Coupled with Le carnaval des animaux – The Swan*. Romance in F, Op 36**. Romance in D, Op 51**. Cello Sonata No 1 in C minor, Op 32**. Chant saphique in D, Op 91**. Gavotte in G minor, Op posth**. Allegro appassionato in B minor, Op 43**. Prière, Op 158***
Steven Isserlis vc *Dudley Moore, **Pascal Devoyon pfs ***Francis Grier org London Symphony Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas *pf
RCA Victor Red Seal 09026 61678-2 (67' · DDD) Recorded 1992. Buy from Amazon
This disc is recommendable not so much for Steven Isserlis’s Cello Concerto – smooth and intelligent as that is – as for the fill-ups. The Swan has Moore and Tilson Thomas as joint accompanists, elegantly executed, but the items with Pascal Devoyon are especially valuable, the First Cello Sonata full of elegantly tailored drama, the two Romances, Chant saphique and Gavotte palpable charmers, tastefully played; and the headstrong, thematically memorable Allegro appassionato, one of the finest shorter pieces in the cellist’s repertory. The disc is enhanced by the opportunity of hearing the rather affecting but relatively unfamiliar Prière, composed for André Hekking just two years before Saint-Saëns’s death.
The two cello concertos, played by Steven Isserlis (reviewed above) are also available coupled on the same disc with La muse et le poète and the Suite. Buy from Amazon.
Cello Concertos Nos 1 and 2
Coupled with Suite, Op 16 (arr vc/orch). Allegro appassionato in B minor, Op 43. Le carnaval des animaux – The Swan
Maria Kliegel vc Bournemouth Sinfonietta / Jean-François Monnard
Naxos 8 553039 (62' · DDD). Buy from Amazon
This issue neatly plugs two gaps in the catalogue. The cello and orchestra version of the Op 16 Suite (originally with piano) is extremely effective, with the composer's own colourful and transparent instrumentation. The Romance sounds particularly fine with its expressive, original harmonies, and prominent woodwind, and Maria Kliegel and the Bournemouth players are thoroughly in tune with the spirit of the music.
The Second Cello Concerto of 1902, the last of Saint-Saens's ten concertos, lacks the highly memorable melodies of the popular First Concerto, but it has other qualities – a fin de siècle richness of harmony in the slower music, and a two-movement form that's both original and cogent. It's also very virtuoso, and Maria Kliegel performs with impressive panache and precision. A most welcome addition to the catalogue, then, especially in such a persuasive performance – and at a super-bargain price.
The First Concerto, too, is well played, but on its own wouldn't be my first recommendation. The Naxos recording, though realistic and well balanced, doesn't sound so full and warm, and the performance seems a little disconnected.