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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Cello Sonatas 1 and 2
Allegro Appassionato
Le Cygne

Luc Tooten, cello
Benjamin Rawitz, piano
Recorded Right Place Studios, Brussels, February 1998
PAVANE ADW7407 [63’28]

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Saint-Saëns’ sonatas for cello are underrated. Though inconsistent in quality they have an ambivalence of tone and stylistic affinity to compel interest. Not unlike the Elgar Violin Sonata the Saint-Saëns cello sonatas have recently undergone something of a discographic fluorescence. Whilst the composer did record some of his violin works with Gabrielle Willaume – currently on APR – he never turned to the cello repertoire. Over a decade after his death, in 1935, cellist Paul Bazelaire and legendary pianist Isidor Philipp recorded the First sonata, followed two years later by a recording of the inner two movements of the Second, Op 123 (both now on Pearl). And for many years that was that. Now however a modest but strong resurgence of interest in, and acknowledgement of these works has taken place and one can find recordings by Isserlis and Devoyon (RCA), Lindstom and Forsberg (Hyperion) and Blake and Palmer (Etcetera). Look hard enough and you may even come across Andre Navarra’s recording on CAL9818, amongst other extant offerings. These distinguished advocates have all seen something of value in works previously shunned as trivial or fatally uneven.

After a somewhat sombre opening the First Sonata indulges in some mildly fractious writing. As the cello muses on the lower strings the piano becomes increasingly dominant and the Janus-faced nature of Saint-Saëns’ aesthetic becomes clearer. This is a Sonata that faces both ways, back to the taut Beethovenian and also – this is a work written in 1872 and roughly bisecting Brahms’ two cello sonatas – to high Romanticism. The wittily inflected piano introduces a second movement chorale prelude of warmth, delicacy and undeniable charm whilst the finale builds up a considerable head of steam, in some ways anticipatory of Saint-Saëns’ pupil, Fauré. If I have a criticism it’s that the movement isn’t quite distinctive enough. By the time he came to write the Second Sonata, in 1905, he gave more freedom and flexibility to his paragraphs and the opening movement emerges as a feely evolving romantic argument, though not one discursive enough to imperil architecture. I did find Tooten and Rawitz very occasionally laboured in the passagework but otherwise their conformity and synchronicity of approach pays dividends here. Tooten has a lean tonal profile and is a flexible player. The scherzo is an example of Saint-Saëns’ unselfconscious command of variation form. First Rawitz and then Tooten introduce their fugal entries from 5’12 with almost finessing clarity and delicacy as Saint-Saëns plays some sophisticated games of musical hide and seek. There is some warmly expressive and cogent playing in the Romanza. I missed some range of tone colours from Tooten but this is concentrated and sensitively phrased and Rawitz is a most refined and intelligent player. There is soft pliancy from both in this song without words. They ride the crest of the robust, slightly disappointing finale with considerable aplomb and deal equally well with the small make-weights; the Allegro Appassionato, much recorded, is good without being outstanding and Le Cygne is unsentimentalised.

The sound quality has clarity but is somewhat distant. There are times, especially in the earlier Sonata, when the balance is awry and the piano overpowers the cello. But these are sensitive and persuasive performances of works that are increasingly being taken into the living repertoire.

Jonathan Woolf


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