SAINT-SAËNS Cello Concerto No 1. Cello Sonatas
Plenty of recordings of the Cello Concerto No 1. Plenty of recordings of the Cello Sonata No 2. Single discs featuring the two together, however, are few and far between – and none of them includes the two extant movements of Saint-Saëns’s Cello Sonata No 3, for this is its first recording. So Harmonia Mundi’s disc has already got a lot going for it. But there is a further plus: the sound engineering. This is simply a beautiful recording to listen to, the solo cello ideally balanced against both orchestra and piano in a warm, natural acoustic with clarity and presence.
Emmanuelle Bertrand can hold her head high among the big names, engaging, characterful, with a rounded, burnished tone. She is no slouch when it comes to pyrotechnics but she takes a less ardent view of the concerto than the masterly Steven Isserlis with Michael Tilson Thomas (Sony Classical, 12/93), let alone Mischa Maisky and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG, 2/99), who push things along rather too much for my taste. The F major Cello Sonata is finely accomplished. Here I prefer Bertrand and Amoyel to the excellent Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood (Signum, 10/11), not merely for the piano tone but for their more imaginative handling of the Scherzo (second movement) variations – try the final (eighth) presto variation – and more nuanced Romanza.
As to the previously unheard Third Sonata, it was begun in 1913 but not completed until 1919. The night before cellist Joseph Hollmann was due to give the first (private) performance, he turned up at the composer’s house to rehearse but instead had to confess that he had left the score in a carriage. Unperturbed, Saint-Saëns then spent the next 24 hours rewriting the entire four movements so that the scheduled soirée could take place. Even then, somehow the manuscript of the final two movements subsequently went missing. The otherwise informative booklet does not reveal how the lengthy (9'27") opening Allegro animato and Andante sostenuto (4'57") came to light. Late Saint-Saëns is not his best period but it’s worth investigating for the magical end of the Allegro if nothing else. Nevertheless, the disc has rather more than just this USP to recommend it.