SAINT-SAËNS Septet; Carnival des Animaux
‘What hard things,’ wrote Saint-Saëns, ‘have been said against virtuosity!… The fact must be proclaimed from the house-tops – in art a difficulty overcome is a thing of beauty.’ There are many such beauties in Le Carnaval des animaux, and their difficulties are not for the faint-hearted or the technically challenged, especially where the two pianists are concerned. On this disc, not only are the difficulties overcome, they are dispatched with tremendous verve and wit.
The EMI recording of 1977 has many virtues, but this one has the edge on a number of fronts: clearer sound, subtler phrasing, better balance between instruments (the EMI cuckoo is so much ‘au fond des bois’ as to be drowned at times) and sharper articulation in the faster movements. Where the earlier disc took some note of the composer’s instruction in ‘Pianistes’ that they are to play their scales like clumsy beginners, Braley and Dalberto go overboard with hilarious results. Elsewhere, the Swan glides serenely, the Hen and Cock throw brisk insults at one another, and the Aquarium glows mysteriously as though lit from behind.
In the Septet, the players rightly refuse to make more of the music than is really there. This light touch (first evident in the delicate give-and-take of the fugal writing in the ‘Préambule’) allows us to relish Saint-Saëns’s utter professionalism: every part in the texture has its own shape and colour and, if there were compositional difficulties to be overcome, one would never know. The four shorter pieces on this splendid disc include the delicious Fantaisie for violin and harp, and three arrangements for cello and piano taken from the horn, organ and operatic repertoires. A last word of praise must go to the blissfully surreal artwork, as French as anything in the music.