Before hearing this disc I only knew the ubiquitous The Swan
although if I had thought about it I would probably have assumed that the composer must have written more for cello and piano, as he did for so many other common combinations. It is part of the problem with as good and prolific a craftsman as Saint-Saëns that it is easy to take his merits and works for granted, without giving individual works the careful attention that they deserve. Certainly, for me at least, that has been the case with these works. The two Sonatas are very well worth getting to know – not merely beautifully written for the instruments and fluently put together but with something individual to say which is said in an interesting and economical way.
The First Sonata dates from the same period as the First Cello Concerto and shows the same amazing ability to ensure that the cello is never swamped by the other instruments. Whereas, for example, in the nearly comtemporary sonatas of Brahms there can often be a sense that the cellist is having to fight his corner for his part to register adequately, here all is clear with both instruments able to speak clearly and without having to force their way. That is not to say that the music is lacking in feeling or emotion. There is a sense of musical energy in the work that drives its three succinct movements forward. The performers make the most of every moment of the piece whilst not losing sight of its overall structure.
The Second Sonata is just as gripping a piece and performance but is very different in character. It was written earlier than the wonderful series of Sonatas for wind instruments and piano that the composer wrote after the Great War, but it shares with those works an apparent determination to preserve the classical values of composition and to show that whatever other composers were doing at the time there could still be life in the classical style of Beethoven and Mozart. Even then it includes such imaginative ideas as the opening for unaccompanied cello and the wonderful Scherzo in the form of a set of variations. Despite a length of over half an hour the Sonata never seems a moment too long, at least in this performance, and it too is well worth getting to know.
The three shorter pieces, including The Swan
, are attractive if better not listened to in succession. Perhaps the Allegro Appassionato
for the same combination would have provided more variety here. As a whole though, this is most certainly a very worthwhile disc with very sympathetic performances, clearly recorded, of some fascinating and attractive music.