SAINT-SAËNS Chamber Works
Saint-Saëns’s chamber music fares better in the concert hall than the recording studio, perhaps because musicians tend to listen less to academic name-calling (‘conservative’, ‘too prolific’) than to the music itself. The three late wind sonatas in particular have received far fewer recordings than their status as repertoire staples deserves. Try the kinky-Baroque first movement of the Oboe Sonata, jauntily phrased by Gareth Hulse, or the animato second of the Clarinet Sonata, garbed in rich Mozartian cloth by Richard Hosford. My own favourite is the Bassoon Sonata, for its fresh and gentle wit and skirting of cliché: Ursula Leveaux does it proud, with especially luscious tone in the opening Allegretto.
Surprises are thinner on the ground in the earlier works but none is less than, to echo Ravel’s assessment, ‘finely put together’. Hummability quotient is high in the Piano Quartet and Quintet, and off the scale in the Septet. The late Lionel Salter used to complain in these pages that recordings of the Septet tend to sound like a trumpet concerto; not this one. If you employ hit artists like Maurice André they will tend to hog the microphone but, happily, Mark David is a more sensitive soul who has fully imbibed the Nash’s joyous spirit of corporate music-making, and Hyperion’s engineers have placed him at a respectable distance. If anything it is Ian Brown’s piano that takes centre-stage, and that’s no bad thing except in the extensive fugal finales to the Piano Quartet and Quintet where Saint-Saëns, most unusually, seems to over-run himself.
I might return less frequently to the Caprice and Tarantelle for all Philippa Davies’s sparkling contributions, but really, this is a set of sheer delight: let’s hear it for imaginative conservatism.