Jean-Jacques Kantorow has been music director of the
Tapiola Sinfonietta for nearly ten years. Here he features as violin
soloist in the two concertante pieces, and as conductor in the Spartacus
Overture. The latter was composed in 1863 to precede a new play by Alphonse
Pagès on the familiar story; but without the availability of
Kirk Douglas it soon dropped from the repertory. So too did the music,
though as ever with Saint-Saëns the construction is sound and the
scoring is always appropriate - at times vivid too. But in truth the
music lacks a distinctive personality, since there are no memorable
themes and its manner is not compelling in the dramatic sense. Although
the playing is good, the recorded sound is not as colourful as the BIS
engineers can conjure, so this must be counted only a muted success.
The musical style of Saint-Saëns tended in the
direction of elegance, wit and sophistication rather than towards either
modernism or emotional turbulence. And no composer since Beethoven has
shown so consistent an interest in the concerto, for he was a master
of the art of balancing a solo instrument with the orchestra.
Of the three violin concertos of Saint-Saëns,
only the Third has achieved a regular position around the concert halls
of the world, and it is rare indeed to encounter either of the others.
Since we all tend to operate on the assumption that music we don't know
is music we don't need to know, it is pleasing to report just what a
good piece the Violin Concerto No. 2 is. It begins really strongly,
with a compelling rhythmic pulse which sets the agenda for the whole
of the first movement. Kantorow clearly cares about this music and sustains
elegant lines and virtuoso figurations as appropriate. The expressive
slow movement leads directly into the capricious finale, and this performance
is well worth hearing. For Kantorow and BIS do Saint-Saëns a real
favour by exposing some splendid music which has been under-valued.
The Concerto dates from 1858, La Muse et le Poète
for violin, cello and orchestra, from a full fifty years later. The
beautiful opening of this single-movement duo concertante is a really
special inspiration, but alas the quality of invention is not sustained
throughout the work's fifteen-minute duration. Again the playing of
both soloists and orchestra is skilful and dedicated, the recording
good though not outstanding.