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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Symphonies, Piano and Violin Concertos
see end of review for listing
Ulf Hoelscher (violin) Gabriel Tacchino (piano) Ralph Kirshbaum (cello) Bernard Gavoty (organ of the church Saint-Louis des Invalides)
l‘Orchestre National de l’ORTF/Jean Martinon (symphonies)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Pierre Dervaux (violin concertos)
Orchestra of Radio Luxembourg/Louis de Froment(piano concertos)
rec. 1972-1975, Salle Wagram, Paris (Symphonies); 1977, Abbey Road Studios, London (violin); no date or details for the de Froment/Tacchino recordings. ADD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92777 [6 CDs: 449:45]

Experience Classicsonline


This Brilliant box assembles well-known analogue legacy projects from EMI and Vox. You could and may well already have had some or all of these three elements (symphonies, violin concertos and piano concertos) in the form of various EMI twofer and VoxBox formats. In any event, for the newcomer this is a pretty attractive bargain-basement way of familiarising yourself with Saint-Saëns in each of these three genres. You have to settle for analogue recordings from the 1970s - the de Froment material may be from a decade earlier - but the sound quality is very good and does no disservice to the music. If you have discovered Saint-Saëns through the Babe soundtrack or Danse Macabre or Carnaval des Animaux or you know of him through the Third Violin Concerto or the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso or as a Rubinstein fan through the classic Second Piano Concerto then look no further. As with any massed boxed set you can buy better versions of some of these works but as a collection that will encourage exploration this is a risk worth taking.
 
Where Brilliant surprise us is in using the Tacchino set to represent the piano concertos. True they already had this as a separate item in their catalogue but with the other two EMI elements you might have expected either the connoisseurs’ Jeanne-Marie Darré version of the five (EMI France 1955-57, 7243 5 89470 2 3) or the contemporaneous and long-lived Ciccolini set (7243 5 69582 3) or the even later Collard (EMI 7243 5 73356 2 1). And that’s restricting oneself to EMI and not looking to Decca-Universal. Whether this was a free and commercially-driven choice by Brilliant or forced on them by the need to secure a licensing deal this mix-and-match approach is not unique in the Dutch label’s lists. For example the Chandos-originated Polyansky Glazunov symphonies were supplemented by a disc based on licensed material from Bis and Sanctuary-ASV.
 
The un-numbered Symphony in A major has a Jovian splendour linking to Mozart's last symphony. In the third movement there is an effervescent spirit derived from a love for Beethoven's Pastoral and late Haydn. The downy finale suggests a Mendelssohnian fairy kingdom. The numbered First Symphony bears the opus no. 2. There's a folksy, wheezing, mirliton Marche-scherzo and a surprisingly emotional Adagio sounding at first surprisingly like a Miaskovsky symphonic pastoral. The allegro maestoso is indeed majestic, suggestive of the shakos and sabre-taches of the Imperial Cavalry. The Second Symphony is also in four movements. This time the first movement is melodramatic as if scene-setting for one of Weber's supernatural operas. He plays games with a fugue that is sent scurrying across the orchestra and stereo image. Saint-Saëns sets out to entertain and without shaking the roots of heaven does this in music that plays between the poles of Berlioz and even numbered Beethoven.
 
The second disc includes the famous Organ Symphony and the un-numbered Urbs Roma. The latter suggests an undigested esteem for Schumann and his Rhenish symphony. It is smoothly expressed and pictorial yet - like the other three - it is without much of a distinctive hook. Breaking the mould, Saint-Saëns' Third Symphony is in two lanky movements. It’s a work of considerable originality and carefully constructed tensions, the melodic invention is of the most exalted and each musical effect is superbly weighed and calculated. Martinon gives a grand performance that balances tension and grandeur although I wonder if someone accidentally jogged a tambourine accidentally at 13:50 in the first of the two movements. The music thrusts forward, sternly intrepid; what a fine work! This is a good performance. I still love the Frémaux-CBSO recording on CFP. This is a very special work and Martinon makes it sing.
 
Saint-Saëns is a master of tune-spinning and of the orchestral palette. These violin and orchestra works offer fragrant writing in the line of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Octet and the violin concertos by Bruch (No. 1), Glazunov and Karłowicz . These works are sugared rather than salted, honey-roast rather than Bombay-mix, charm-woven rather than vehicles for great angst or profundity; no harm in any of that.
 
The familiar works are the Third Concerto, Havanaise and the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. When I say 'familiar' I mean familiar on disc. When did you last hear any of these in concert? The Third is well enough known not to need much commentary. After a scorching performance it is a mark of attention to aesthetic detail that a very long gap is left before we breathe the sultry Cuban air in Havanaise - also superbly recorded by both Grumiaux and Kogan. Hispanic atmosphere and sensitive attention to dynamic contrasting by Dervaux and Hoelscher as well as an all-conquering pride and impulsive dash make you realise that the Caprice Andalou deserves to be just as well known as the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and the Havanaise. Quickfire playing and romantic themes are boldly despatched. The Prélude from La Déluge with its grave steady fugal character is a work of devotional atmosphere as befits the overture to the composer's 1875 oratorio.
 
Listen to the eager acceleration of Hoelscher in the finale of the Griegian First Concerto which, but for its name and three movements, could easily have passed for one of the nine short genre pieces which fill out the two discs around the core of the three concertos. It’s a short work (almost 12 minutes) of shivering Beethovenian fire - full of incident and invention. Bruch's First Concerto is a model (conscious or unconscious) for these concertos. Bruch also wrote three but it was his first that held the high ground while his other two languished. In the case of Saint-Säens the Third has found a place in record catalogues while the other two have had to struggle against the odds. The Second Concerto has an Ossian-inflected andante espressivo with harp figures lending depth to a sentimentality teetering close to Bruch's Scottish Fantasy. This makes way for a dashing Polacca scherzando with sideways glances towards Beethoven's 'dance apotheosis' - Seventh Symphony.
 
La Muse et le poète is a sober double concerto in which Ralph Kirshbaum's cello cuts a deeper path than the violin. This is soulful, not in the manner of Bruch's Kol Nidrei, but rather like the Beethoven Violin Concerto yet with a Tchaikovskian honeyed nostalgia. The explosive little Valse-Caprice is as arranged by Ysaÿe. The two Romances are just that: well rounded, not impulsive, musing and touching though lacking a strong profile.
 
There is no competition although the shorter works have been gathered onto a much more recent French EMI collections with Plasson and Dumay which I have not heard. Both Hyperion and Claves have offered single CDs of the three concertos but Hoelscher has deep reserves of virtuosity and reflective fibre and a generous way with their expression. You are unlikely to want to wander far from this set which still sounds very good if inevitably slender-toned by comparison with today's very best.
 
The Piano Concertos have been out of the spotlight for years but many pianists have favoured one above the others. Rubinstein's way with the Second is well known and loved. These Luxembourg readings are a bit shrill though Tacchino's closely recorded even obvious piano sounds fine in these poetic and playful pieces. In fact the second concerto sounds pretty good - try the skip and pearlescent glint of the allegro scherzando. The middle range of the piano sounds rather muddy in the finale of the Fourth Concerto. These are serviceable recordings in middling quality analogue. Quite pleasing and at the service of the music but neither outstanding as interpretations or as audio. One discovery though: The Egyptian is delightful and makes a nice foil to the Africa Fantasy with its strong Moroccan flavour emerging around 6:10. It ties also with Saint-Saens’ Algerian Suite.
  
The wallet box houses the booklet - only in Dutch - and a stiff card sleeve for each disc with each card carrying the discographic details on the reverse.
 
Much pleasure is to be derived from these inexpensive discs.  

Rob Barnett 

Details
CD 1 [79:04]
Symphony in A Major (1850) [25:05]
Symphony No. 1 in E flat major Op.2 (1855) [30:40]
Symphony No. 2 in A minor Op. 55 (1878) [22:42]
CD 2 [77:12]
Symphony in F major "Urbs Roma" (1856) [40:37]
Symphony No. 3 in C minor Op. 78 "Organ Symphony" (1886) [36:15]
CD 3 [76:09]
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A major Op. 20 (1859) [11:43]
Violin Concerto No. 2 in C major Op. 58 (1879-80) [37:18]
La Muse et le poète, for violin, cello and orchestra Op. 132 (1910) [15:32]
Valse-caprice (1877) [7:10]
Romance for violin & orchestra in C major Op. 48 (1871) [6:48]
Romance for violin & orchestra in D flat major Op. 37 (1874) [5:53]
CD 4 [73:29]
Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor Op. 61 (1879-80) [27:37]
Havanaise, in E major Op. 83 (1887) [9:40]
Morceau de concert, in G major Op. 62 (1880) [9:39]
Introduction et Rondo capriccioso, in A minor Op. 28 (1887) [8:56]
Caprice andalou, in G major Op. 122 (1904) [9:19]
Prélude du "Déluge", in D major Op. 45 [7:24]
CD 5 [77:00]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D major Op. 17 (1858) [26:47]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 22 (1868) [29:09]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor Op. 44 (1875) [26:46]
CD 6 [66:55]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major Op. 29 (1869) [28:39]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major Op. 103 "Egyptian" (1895) [27:53]
Africa, Fantasy for piano & orchestra Op. 89 (1889-90) [11:02]

 
Comparative reviews on MusicWeb International
Piano concertos - EMI box
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/Apr02/Saent-Saens_concertos.htm
 
Violin concertos - EMI box
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classRev/2003/Oct03/saint_saens_hoelscher.htm 

 


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