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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Chamber Music for Wind Instruments and Piano
Sonata for Oboe and Piano in D major, Op. 166 (1921) [11:29]
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in E flat major, Op. 167 (1921) [17:06]
Sonata for Bassoon and Piano in G major, Op. 168 (1921)
Romance for Flute and Piano in D flat major, Op. 37 (1871)
Caprice sur des airs danois et russes, for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet and Piano, Op. 79 (1887)
Ensemble Villa Musica: (Jean-Claude Gťrard (flute); Ingo Goritzki (oboe); Ulf Rodenhšuser (clarinet); Dag Jensen (bassoon); Leonard Hokanson (piano))
rec. January 1991, Furstliche Reitbahn, Bad Arolsen, Germany. DDD

The German company MDG is one of my favourite independent labels. I always feel energised by their fascinating and often adventurous choice of repertoire. From my collection several MDGs from the pens of Spohr, Raff, Rheinberger, Ries, Onslow and Gade easily spring to mind. This release of five chamber scores from Saint-SaŽns is up to their usual high standard of performance and sound. It will undoubtedly win the artistic approval of many listeners. The only caveat is the bewildering numbering of tracks. We are not told whether this release, evidently recorded back in 1991, comprises previously released material (Editor - it appears that these recording were released by MDG with different cover art but the same catalogue number in 1999*).
Camille Saint-SaŽns is one of those composers whose fame now rests largely on just a small number of works, namely the Symphony No. 3 ĎOrganí; Symphonic Poem: Danse macabre and The Carnival of the Animals for two pianos and orchestra. From an early age, Saint-SaŽns composed prolifically and seemingly without effort and once said. "I produce music like an apple tree produces apples." Throughout his long life of eighty-six years he wrote in a large number of genres, including symphonies, concertos, sacred and secular choral music, chamber music, numerous songs and solo pieces for piano and organ, not to mention thirteen operas.
When Saint-SaŽns was born in Paris in 1835, Mendelssohn had twelve more years to live. When Saint-SaŽns died in Algiers in 1921, Stravinskyís controversial The Rite of Spring was already eight years old. By the time of his death Saint-SaŽns had shifted from being viewed as a progressive to being acknowledged as a reactionary. His popularity in France had diminished significantly, his tonal and conservative music combined with an elegant lyricism quickly became unfashionable, since around the end of the Great War the public taste in music had changed. Saint-SaŽnsís generation of late-Romantic composers become marginalised having to compete with the growing enthusiasm for influential modernist composers such as Stravinsky, Bartůk, Schoenberg and Berg.
However for several decades the music of the multi-talented Saint-SaŽns has been undergoing a resurgence of interest. Sadly the majority of the attention is concentrated mainly on the bulk of Saint-SaŽns scores that have been recorded numerous times previously. This is a shame as there are still many rarely recorded works that require a wider circulation. One only has to hear the Piano Trios No.1 and 2 from the Joachim Trio on Naxos 8.550935 and the Requiem, Op.54 from the Coro della Radio Svizzera, Lugano and Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana under Diego Fasolison on Chandos 10214 to be aware of the many magnificent pieces that await general discovery.
In 1921, the last year of his life, Saint-SaŽns embarked on an assignment to compose sonatas for each of the main woodwind instruments that he considered to be rather neglected. In the end he never did write those sonatas for cor anglais and flute, but there are sonatas for oboe, bassoon and clarinet.
The appealing first movement of the Oboe Sonata, with its memorable opening motif, has a reflective mood, almost as if one is contemplating a start to a new day. The central Allegretto initially feels melancholic before developing between 1:37-2:29 to one of childlike rhythms of the nursery before the serious mood returns. In the brief and brisk Molto allegro, finale Saint-SaŽns provides a bright and carefree conclusion.
The most substantial work here is the Clarinet Sonata which has a haunting Brahmsian main theme in its relaxing Allegretto opening. The short Allegro animato with a perky character is evocative of child-like frolics. As a contrast one is aware of the dark and ominous, funereal-like opening of the Lento. The mood alters at 2:20 (track 6) where a chink of light heralds a new dawn. Agile and pliable writing from Saint-SaŽns in the closing Molto allegro that is upbeat and scampering. From 3:36 (track 7) one notices the return of the haunting theme from the opening movement. †††††††††
The next work is the Bassoon Sonata with its short opening movement, marked Allegro moderato. This music feels densely textured with long melodic lines that increase in weight. The second movement is a jaunty and frivolous Allegro scherzando. The Molto adagio opens with a memorable gentle and rocking theme,† and contains many subtle mood changes. From 5:15 (track 10) the movement ends in a brief and confident Allegro moderato. †††††
Composed in 1871 the Romance for Flute and Piano (track 11) was part of a series of Romances that Saint-SaŽns wrote for violin, horn and cello. One is captivated by the mood of autumnal reflection that pervades this single movement work.

To take on a tour of St. Petersburg, Saint-SaŽns wrote the Caprice sur des airs danois et russes, for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet and Piano (track 12). From 1887 the score delightfully and proficiently combines Danish and Russian themes with the contrasting sonorities of the piano and woodwind instruments. Divided into five sections the score is played without a break. I enjoyed the opening Poco adagio with its tentative playfulness, the sad and mournful Moderato and the scurrying and light-hearted closing Allegro vivace.††
Four of the five works on this MDG disc are contained on a 2006 release of a programme of Saint-SaŽns chamber music from members of the Nash Ensemble on a Hyperion double set CDA67431-2. Recorded at the Henry Wood Hall, London in 2004 the Sonatas for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon are included as is the Caprice. The remaining couplings are the Septet; Piano Quartet; Piano Quintet and the Tarentelle. In my review I wrote, ďThe soloists offer fresh, thoughtful and invigorating accounts that serve the composer admirably throughout Ö. A wonderfully presented release that is highly recommended. One of my records of the year.Ē In the end I did not select the Hyperion as one of Ďrecords of the yearí but it is an excellent release nevertheless.
In the Oboe Sonata and the Bassoon Sonata I marginally prefer these MDG versions from Ensemble Villa Musica soloists, the oboist Ingo Goritzki and bassoonist Dag Jensen with Leonard Hokanson on piano. I feel that they have slightly more character over the excellent Hyperion Nash accounts.
In the Clarinet Sonata the 2006 Potton Hall account from clarinettist Sabine Meyer and pianist Oleg Maisenberg is my benchmark of the work for her effortless control, broad tonal colouring and deep luxuriant timbre. This impeccable performance is contained on Meyerís excellent disc of ĎFrench works for clarinet and pianoí on EMI Classics 3 79787 2 c/w Poulenc Clarinet Sonata; Devienne Clarinet Sonata No. 1 and Milhaud Scaramouche (arr. for clarinet and piano). However, I am also fond of the fresh and invigorating performance from clarinettist Richard Hosford and Ian Brown of the Nash Ensemble on Hyperion.
The attractive Caprice is persuasively performed here with great fluency and considerable panache by the members of the Ensemble Villa Musica. In addition the Romance for Flute and Piano is given a delightful interpretation by flautist Jean-Claude Gťrard and pianist Leonard Hokanson. However, I still have high regard for the delightfully poised Hyperion accounts.†
On this MDG release the sound quality is of a high standard: clear with a decent balance. However, the German label have spoilt the otherwise excellent presentation by providing incorrect numbering for the track-listing. The final three works, the Bassoon Sonata, the Romance and the Caprice are all affected by this sloppy workmanship. It is all most confusing as there are actually only twelve tracks not seventeen as indicated. If I have deciphered it correctly:
i) Track 10 is the Molto adagio movement of the Bassoon Sonata combined with the Allegro moderato movement that is incorrectly shown as a separate track 11.
ii) Track 11 is actually the single movement Romance for Flute and Piano not the final movement Allegro moderato of the Bassoon Sonata incorrectly shown as track 11.
iii) Track 12 consists of all of the five movements of the Caprice sur des airs danois et russes and not as incorrectly shown as five separate sections numbered as tracks 13-17.
While there is a considerable and confusing drawback in the incorrect track numbering this is a well performed and recorded release making a worthwhile addition to the Saint-SaŽns discography. The interpretations can stand comparison with many of the finest versions.
Michael Cookson

* MDG state they are very sorry for the mistake and that a new corrected edition is being produced.

Recommended recordings  
Perhaps the most recommendable Saint-SaŽns recordings I have come across in recent years are the following:
• The acclaimed 1959 recording of the celebrated Symphony No. 3 ĎOrganí from Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on RCA Red Seal SACD 82876-61387-2 RE1.
• The award winning set of The Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra from 2000-01 played by Stephen Hough and the CBSO under Sakari Oramo on Hyperion CDA67331/2
• The Cello Concertos No. 1 & 2 plus three other Saint-SaŽns cello scores with soloist Steven Isserlis from 1992-99 on RCA Red Seal 82876 65845 2.
• The Violin Concertos Nos.1 & 3; Introduction et Rondo capriccioso and Havanaise performed by Kyung Wha Chung with various orchestras and using the conductors Lawrence Foster and Charles Dutoit recorded between 1974-80 on Decca 460 008-2.
String Quartets No. 1 & 2; Violin Sonatas No. 1 & 2 and Violin pieces by Quatuor Viotti & Olivier Charlier (violin) & Jean Hubeau (piano) from 1984-87 on Warner Classics Apex 2564 61426-2.  
Septet; Tarentelle; Bassoon Sonata; Piano Quartet; Piano Quintet; Oboe Sonata; Clarinet Sonata & Caprice sur des airs danois et russes by members of the Nash Ensemble from 2004 on Hyperion CDA67431-2  
Messe de Requiem, Op.54 and Part Songs by various soloists, Coro della Radio Svizzera, Lugano & Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Diego Fasolis recorded in 2001 on Chandos CHAN 10214.  
Piano Trios No.1 & 2 from the Joachim Trio recorded in 1993 on Naxos 8.550935.
• Currently the Scandinavian label BIS have embarked on a substantial new series of Saint-SaŽns works. I especially enjoyed their disc of the violin concertos including other orchestral works from French violinist and conductor Jean-Jacques Kantorow and the Tapiola Sinfonietta on BIS BIS-CD-860; BIS-CD-1060 and BIS-CD-1470



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