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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33 (1872) [18:44]*
Cello Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 119 (1902) [18:01]+
La muse et le poète, Op. 132 (1909) [15:45]+#
Suite for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 16 (1862) [17:04]+
Prière, Op. 158 (1919) [5:55]^
Steven Isserlis (cello)
#Joshua Bell (violin)
^Francis Grier (organ)
*London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
+NDR Symphony Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. *Blackheath Concert Halls, London, September 1992; ^Eton College Chapel, Windsor, February 1993; +Musikhalle, Hamburg, September 1999
BMG-RCA CLASSIC LIBRARY 82876-65845-2 [76:02]

The two concertos, the meat-and-potatoes of this programme fail to meet expectations. It assembles much, though not quite all, of Saint-Saëns' concerted music for cello. Steven Isserlis's rhapsodic approach to the A minor's opening theme sounds beautiful and avoids overplaying its turbulence, allowing time and space for a dramatic build-up. He also produces a deep, vibrant tone as he descends on the C string. But the more inward second theme (track 1, 1:35) feels limp and inert; similarly, while Isserlis is properly light in the Menuet, he doesn't maintain tension in his long sustained tones. Nor is there any grace or elegance in the busier passages of the Finale. At 2:34 of track 3 the cellist scrubs away aimlessly at the accompanying figures, while the woodwind motifs are deadpan and uninvolved. Indeed Michael Tilson Thomas fails to rouse his capable forces to much enthusiasm. The engineering is clear and pleasing, but can't ameliorate passing balance problems. The violins at 0:50 (track 1) are unduly reticent for starters and that should easily have been correctable from the podium. The sound, at least, is clear and vivid, especially with a mild volume boost.

In the D minor, one gets the feeling that the piece itself is the problem. It certainly sounds impressive, more "important" than the earlier score. The themes are more substantial, and their development ventures into expressive territory previously unexplored by this composer but the music tends to ramble. In several quiet passages, at least, cello and woodwinds achieve a pleasing chamber-like parity. At the podium, Christoph Eschenbach takes more pains over detail than Thomas - note the squared-off woodwind tenutos at the start of the concerto. Here the orchestral performance is most persuasive.

If the main course doesn't quite satisfy, the extras demand attention nonetheless. In the booklet, Michael Kennedy informs us that the composer didn't conceive La muse et le poète, a fifteen-minute, quasi-improvisatory tone poem, as program music. It was his publisher who dreamed up the title, which aptly fits this piece with its two solo protagonists. Isserlis's rich cello tones, as the eponymous poet, anchor the violin's searching, impulsive flights as the muse - impersonated by Joshua Bell, no less. Both soloists inflect their lines expressively without losing the overall flow. In the accompaniment, Eschenbach underlines a textural contrast between soft-edged, slightly grainy strings and crisp, focused woodwinds. The Hamburg venue's resonance obscures some orchestral detail, noticeably the whirling woodwinds at 14:02 just before the final climactic tutti. Still, this reading easily outclasses Laurence Petitgirard's crude account (ADDA), the only other performance I've heard, on both musical and technical grounds.

The Op. 10 Suite, one of Saint-Saëns' earliest works, will similarly interest collectors. Its five brief movements pay homage to earlier dance models. Kennedy makes the obvious, and logical, comparison to Grieg's Holberg Suite. In the opening Prelude, Isserlis's solo line - a sort of moderately paced moto perpetuo, if you'll pardon the oxymoron - could be more tightly bound: it wanders. But the middle movements - especially the Sérénade, a waltz with achingly beautiful cello lines - are all fetching, capped by a spirited closing Tarantelle. Eschenbach once again keeps his forces in good musical order. The long ambience militates somewhat against the intended "Old Musicke" effect - blunting, for example, the Gavotte's rhythmic point - but otherwise doesn't interfere with this lightly scored music.

In the Prière for cello and organ, a closing bonne-bouche, Francis Grier's tasteful registrations provide Isserlis with full-toned support. On the other hand the Blackheath acoustic's long overhang makes the organ chords overlap with their successors, making the composer's harmonic language sound rather more adventurous than it really is!

At mid-price, this remains recommendable for the tone-poem and the Suite. If you're primarily interested in getting the two concertos together, go for Torlief Thedéen's Bis coupling: he plays the first with full-toned panache and actually manages to get the second airborne. That programme, too, offers uncommon makeweights: the Romance for cello and orchestra, and the early A major symphony.

Stephen Francis Vasta



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