SAINT-SAËNS Concerto for Cello No. 2; La Muse; Romance; Cello Sonata No.2
Steven Isserlis here follows up his earlier outstanding disc of Saint-Saens’ cello music (12/93) with another that’s even more revelatory. Where the earlier disc covered the most popular works – not just the First Cello Concerto and First Cello Sonata but inevitably The Swan too, this one concentrates on far more neglected cello works that Saint-Saens wrote towards the end of his long career. Just as the earlier Concerto and Sonata were written in the same year, 1872, so Saint-Saens followed up the Second Concerto of 1902 with a sonata three years later.
It is true that neither Concerto nor Sonata quite matches its predecessor in memorable melody, but Isserlis, in powerful, imaginative performances, brings out other qualities to demonstrate how unjust their neglect is. That is particularly true of the Sonata, which, with Isserlis as passionate advocate, 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-Saens’ 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-Saens 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 as conductor, can quite overcome the truncated feeling at the end, when the reprise of the opening material is so short, hardly more than a coda.
The Romance is an adaptation of the slow fourth movement of the early Cello Suite, Op 16, a charming piece which Saint-Saens reworked several times. Yet best of all is the lyrical dialogue of La muse et le poete. Inspired by Alfred de Musset’s poem, La nuit de mai, it opens with Saint-Saens 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.'