Though officially written in 1886, the origins of Le
Carnaval des Animaux probably date back to the years Saint-Saëns
taught at the Niedermeyer School in Paris (1861-1865]. According to
his students, he had a habit of illustrating his lessons with humorous
improvisations and funny little parodies. Though they unavailingly urged
Saint-Saëns to put these variations down in writing, it is highly
likely that some of the excursions ultimately ended up in Le Carnaval
des Animaux, especially since the title itself also dates from this
The first performance of the Grande Fantaisie Zoologique,
the rough draft of which was to become the Carnival, met with an astounding
reception on "Fat Tuesday", 9 March 1886. The equally successful
publication of the sheet music inspired many arrangements for other
combinations of instruments.
Fearing the Carnival would obscure his other, more
serious works, Saint-Saëns banned its execution and publication
for the remainder of his life, apart from Le Cygne. Following
the composer’s death in 1921, the score was printed once again and soon
afterwards two well-received performances of the entire opus in February
1922 newly invigorated the worldwide success of the piece.
The performances are given here by Arco Baleno (The
rainbow) - a Belgian chamber ensemble consisting of two pianos, string
quartet, double bass, flute, clarinet, celesta and percussion. It was
founded in 1993 by students of several Flemish conservatories and is
a professional chamber ensemble scanning diverse musical works for common
denominators or messages. Usually the group combines a standard repertoire
with less known, often brand new pieces, as on this disc. The difficulty
in reviewing their Saint-Saëns performance is that it is good,
professional and sensible, without being outstanding. Intonation and
ensemble playing are excellent. I presume there is no conductor, none
is mentioned. The pianists do their job well and the balance between
the forces is good. Being a chamber group, the music as one would expect,
is more transparent than with larger forces.
Marc Matthys is a pianist and composer who completed
his classical training at the Royal Conservatory of Ghent. He then made
himself known as an extremely versatile musician in genres as diverse
as classical music, jazz and pop. He is head of the conservatory in
Kortrijk and a teacher at the Hogeschool Gent (conservatory]. The
Camel Caravan has the double bass acting as the lead part, with
accompanying string quartet, flute and piano. The opening brings memories
of "Bydlo" from Mussorgsky’s "Pictures at an
Exhibition", but after the opening passages, a swing jazzy
idiom takes over. The piece ends with a passacaglia interlude before
the final piano chords echo the opening. Of all the shorter items, this
I found the most approachable.
Jan Huylebroeck graduated from the Royal Conservatory
in Ghent with six diplomas, and now works in most areas of the music
business. Apart from performing on the piano, keyboard, bass tuba, (baroque)
timpani and other percussive instruments, he is also in demand as an
accompanist, composer and arranger. His "Cortège des
espaces" is minimalistic, with percussive drums, stamping,
string harmonics and a duet between viola and violin (the three instruments
to take part). There are some canon-like episodes, and the whole piece
relies heavily on the kitchen department. Espèces means
fossils, but how they are presumed to come to life in a dance episode
I cannot fathom. The piece shows marked atonality.
Frits Célis studied in Antwerp, Cologne,
Brussels and Salzburg. Beginning his career as a harpist, he later became
a conductor and musical director at the Antwerp and Brussels operas.
His music evolved from a tonal, post-romantic idiom to atonality and
expressionism, but has now returned to atonal lyricism. His "Elégie
pour un Faun" is well played in its atonal context by flute
and string quartet, but I cannot find any reference musically to a faun;
indeed any message or idiom in the music could be applied to whatsoever
you would like to call it, for example, leaves floating down a river.
Petra Vermote achieved First Prizes in solfège,
guitar, chamber music, harmony, counterpoint and fugue at the Conservatory
in Ghent, and took the Higher Diploma in guitar with Baltazar Benitez.
She took her first lessons in composition at the same music school,
and became a Master in Music, with composing as a speciality, at the
Royal Flemish Conservatory in Antwerp. "Drakemie" was
a title chosen on impulse, but where the music should represent heaven,
change, magic and wisdom I am at a complete loss to appreciate - but
then atonality was never my forte. The same forces as perform in "Le
Carnaval" are used apart from the celesta. One is supposed
to be able to distinguish between the different guises of the dragon,
and its different functions, including the ability to spit fire - my
impression is that tin tacks may be nearer the mark!
Roland Coryn is a graduate from the Royal Conservatory
of Ghent. Having achieved a First Prize in piano and a Higher Diploma
in viola and chamber music, he also attained a First Prize in composition.
He began his career as a performing artist, only later turning to composition.
He eventually produced a reasonably large body of work, consisting of
chamber music, orchestral and choral pieces. He concluded his career
as a professor in composition at the Hogeschool Gent as well as the
head of the SAMW in Harelbeke. "Elephantasia" is written
for solo double bass, and opens with a paraphrase of Saint-Saëns’
elephant. The playing is good, but six and a half minutes of solo double
bass gets rapidly boring and I had great difficulty in holding my attention.
Boudewijn Buckinx is a post-modernist composer,
and has 1001 Sonatas and Nine Unfinished Symphonies to his name; he
is a great protagonist for contemporary music and has his own ensemble.
"Konijn" means rabbit, and indeed if the programme
notes are to be believed, this is a most extra-ordinary rabbit. The
piece opens with quite lush harmonies on a peaceful, gently hopping
rhythm, but then becomes, to my ears, over-loud and overpowering. The
impression I got was more of an exotic brightly-coloured bird preening
its shining coruscatingly coloured feathers and certainly not a dun-colored
rabbit, even with floppy ears! The full ensemble is used - minus celesta.
Yves Bondue taught himself to play and compose
music as well as to write and act. He has been awarded many prizes for
his compositions and many of his works have been published. "Kameleon"
I found quite appealing and very believable in its chameleonesque manner.
There is plenty of change and contrast, with some well-worked ideas,
and with full forces of Arco Baleno, the music depicts its reptilian
subject faithfully in a rainbow of colours.
Lucien Posman teaches at the Hogeschool Gent
and at MAGO, also in Ghent. He is artistic director of the concert hall
De Rode Pomp, and a member of the editorial staff of the New Flemish
Musical Review. He achieved First Prizes in all theatrical courses at
the music schools of Ghent and Antwerp, and as a composer represents
"neo-normalism". "Pauw" (the peacock) is a well
produced musical picture of the peacock with its shrill cry, pecking
and careful slow gait. I found the piece clever rather than overtly
musical, and there is no motif that one can readily attach to a peacock.
At the end of the piece it becomes a cacophony of noise, well presented
by the Ensemble (minus the double bass) which is presumed to be the
peacock exhibiting its finery in display.
In all these pieces the Ensemble gives very professional
performances. The presentation of the disc is striking with an orange
cover and sleeve. The booklet is very informative regarding the Flemish
composers - indeed I should have been at a loss to give any information
without it; all the details are taken from the written articles, at
least as to the careers and qualifications of the composers. An interesting
disc, but more for modernists than pure classicists.