Saint-Saëns's Violin Concertos
The Gramophone Choice
Violin Concertos – No 1 in A, Op 20; No 2 in C, Op 58; No 3 in B minor, Op 61
Philippe Graffin vn BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins
Hyperion CDA67074 (76' · DDD). Buy from Amazon
The first two violin concertos of Saint-Saëns were composed in reverse order. The Second is the longer and lesser-known of the two but the First Concerto more resembles the thematic charm and concise design of the First Cello Concerto. Cast in a single short movement that falls into three distinct sections, it launches the soloist on his way right from the start, and features a delightful central section with some felicitous woodwind-writing. Hyperion holds a trump card in Philippe Graffin, whose elegant, emotionally charged playing is strongly reminiscent of the young Menuhin, and whose understanding of the idiom is second to none – certainly among modern players.
Saint-Saëns’s First Violin Concerto was composed in 1859, whereas his Second preceded it by a year. Unexpectedly, the first movement’s thematic material has an almost Weberian slant. The orchestration is heavier than in the First, and the musical arguments are both more formal and more forcefully stated. It’s a more overtly virtuoso work than the First Concerto, and perhaps rather less memorable, but again Graffin weaves a winsome solo line and Martyn Brabbins directs a strong account of the orchestral score, with prominently projected woodwinds. The relatively well-known Third Concerto (1880) is roughly the same length as the Second (around half an hour), but is more consistently interesting. The basic material is of higher quality, the key relations more telling and orchestration infinitely more delicate. No other recording liberates so much of the score’s instrumental detail, probably because most of Graffin’s predecessors have been balanced way in front of the orchestra.
Violin Concerto No 3
Coupled with Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Op 28 Chausson Poème, Op 25 Ysaÿe Poème élégiaque, Op 12
Tedi Papavrami vn Liège Philharmonic Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth
Aeon AECD1088 (58’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Anyone familiar with the recordings Sarasate made at the start of the 1900s will recognise his style – elegant, mercurial and supremely fluent – in Saint-Saëns’s violin music, much of it written for him. Tedi Papavrami, while not attempting to sound like Sarasate, adopts something of his graceful manner; his alert, lively approach is just right for conveying the music’s inventive, often improvisatory character. He makes the Rondo into something truly capricious, with even the tender moments and the rhetorical gestures retaining a playful air.
The Third Violin Concerto, too, gets an extrovert performance, each episode vividly characterised yet without excessive intensity. Played like this, one can imagine it as a ballet score accompanying a fairyland scenario.
Ysaÿe’s and Chausson’s world is more sombre but still evokes a magical, legendary atmosphere. It’s most interesting to hear the Chausson alongside the work that inspired it: Ysaÿe’s Poème isn’t as concentrated or as haunting as Chausson’s but it’s more overtly dramatic, rising to a powerful, Wagnerian climax. Papavrami is able to find a different, darker range of tone colours for these two works, and again the orchestra responds sympathetically, while remaining Gallic in its emphasis on differentiated rather than blended sounds. A most enjoyable CD, strongly recommended.