Saint-Saens Piano Quartets
Saint-Saëns is so well known nowadays for his symphonies, concertos and orchestral works that it is easy to overlook his substantial chamber output. Although he wrote vocal works, from songs to opera, instrumental music was his main love, much against the grain of French musical life in the mid-19th century (a situation not unlike that of his younger contemporary Martucci in Italy). Listen to the sparkling Scherzo (Poco allegro più tosto moderato) of the Op 41 Piano Quartet (1875), or the lilting central Andante of the earlier E major piece, a three-movement student quartet of considerable imagination completed in 1853 when he was just 18.
It is unclear whether this early Quartet was played in its composer’s lifetime; by the time chamber music became more fashionable in French music-making (a trend Saint-Saëns helped pioneer) in the 1880s, it might have seemed too old-fashioned to programme. Yet it is not an immature work except by the standards of Saint-Saëns’s later works, not least the Op 41 Quartet, which has a power and brilliance of execution that make it worthy of comparison with Schumann’s Op 47.
The Mozart Piano Quartet play both quartets with considerable élan, evoking the spirit of their namesake in Saint-Saëns’s beautifully balanced, often gossamer textures. Where power is required, though, as in the outer movements of Op 41 (and, perhaps surprisingly, at the climax of the Andante maestoso ma con moto), they respond with assurance. The delightful makeweight of the Barcarolle (1898, rewritten in 1909 with a viola replacing the harmonium of the original) completes a splendid disc.