Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
String Quartet No 1 in E minor, Op 112 [33:57]
String Quartet No 2 in G major, Op 153 [28:45]
Fine Arts Quartet
rec. 26-29 October, 2009, Wittem Monastery Library, The Netherlands
NAXOS 8.572454 [62:42]

Camille Saint-SaŽnsí string quartets are not the chirpy, cheery, tune-laden gems we would expect from the composer. They are not as instantly attractive and romantic as the concertos, nor as easily accessible a combination of formal simplicity and autumnal sorrow as the late woodwind sonatas (available on a superb recent Naxos disc). If anything by Saint-SaŽns can be honestly called challenging, it is these two string quartets. But the rewards are well worth your listening time.

The first quartet, in E minor, opens with a melancholy tune which is spun out of a single high E on the first violin, slowly repeated; all of this is done with mutes. The mutes stay on for quite a bit of the allegro proper, though the secondary material offers more vigor and contrapuntal detail. There is a really compelling drama in this first movement, but until the dramatic finish it is often understated and repeated listens really do help fully size up the importance of Saint-SaŽnsí thinking here. The scherzo has a short, good tune for a hook, and some formidable licks by violin and viola; it is also capable of a near-Brahmsian sternness, and the trio is a fugue. The slow movement provides a major-key respite, but it doesnít go in for easy sentimentality either, and the finale doesnít let up. This is a dark, deeply introspective piece which should surprise anybody who thinks Saint-SaŽns is a lightweight; the quartet, violinist Ralph Evans has said in an interview, will ďchange minds in a hurry.Ē Indeed.

The second string quartet, in G, is cheerier but not much closer to the stereotype we have of Saint-SaŽns. It sounds more Russian than French, especially the leaping tune which begins the first movement and the somber hymn-like tune which appears in the adagio; speaking of which, the molto adagio is more overtly pretty here than in the first quartet, and spiked with a faster central section, the transition out of which (and through to the end of the movement) is a very fine piece of lyrical writing. The finale provides a sober but reassuring finish to the work, founded on a rather exotic tune in fifths.

The Fine Arts Quartet are up to their usual impressive standards: this is an ensemble with a rich, velvety, unabashedly romantic sound, and often seems incapable of being anything other than achingly beautiful. In the last two minutes of the Second Quartetís adagio they are breathtaking. Iíd listen to them play nearly anything from this time period, and they validate that trust here. The recorded sound (intriguingly, the sessions were in a monastery library) is intimate, warm, and ideally suited to the quartetís unique style; the notes are by the ubiquitous Keith Anderson, and the look at an unexplored side of Saint-SaŽns, by a quartet of this caliber, is not to be missed.

Finally it seems appropriate to note that Wolfgang Laufer, the superb cellist who was a member of the Fine Arts Quartet since 1979, died on 8 June this year, soon after the release of this disc and the recording of two more Naxos albums (Schumann and Kreisler). He was one of three Fine Arts players ó along with the two violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Boico ó who had been in the quartet together for over thirty years. His, then, will be a hard chair to replace. Let us hope that the Fine Arts Quartetís unmistakable sound will live on.

Brian Reinhart

A new side of Saint-SaŽns, no bon-bons but great interest.