I am in agreement with other reviewers elsewhere that this is
music which does not yield up its attractions on first listening.
A certain cool formality - very different from that which we
more readily associate with the composer of his more popular
compositions - disguises its profundity. One reviewer even goes
so far as to say that the failure of his string quartets to
please or succeed, relative to Saint-Saëns’ popular
works, is explained by their lack of memorability. This to me
suggests lazy listening; certainly the members of the distinguished
American group the Fine Arts Quartet believe in this music.
Their first violinist Ralph Evans describes them as “serious,
intellectual, brilliantly crafted yet delightful works which
will change minds in a hurry”.
Despite having already written a good deal of chamber music,
Op. 112 was Saint-Saëns’ first foray into the medium
of the string quartet. These are both mature works, written
when he was in his sixties and eighties respectively; the second,
in particular, exudes the melancholy nostalgia associated with
old age. His love of Bach and Mendelssohn is manifested in the
frequent archaic and neo-classical allusions in his music and
a love of the fugue, a favourite form which appears several
time at different points in these works. Yet Saint-Saëns’
sound-world is clearly not entirely retrospective; it contains
many Impressionistic touches, unsurprising from a composer whose
career spanned the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth.
The E minor quartet begins in a melancholy vein, sombre and
formal; there is always a note of anxiety throughout. The second
movement calls for some superbly articulated triplets in the
restatement of the principal theme. The Molto adagio is dominated
by the singing of the first violin, presumably in homage to
the dedicatee Eugène Ysaÿe. Played as well as it
is here, this movement seems to match the poise and tenderness
of the Beethoven Cavatina; there is the same sense of time suspended.
In a more agitated passage a tentative, stuttering syncopated
figure alternates with the slow theme before they resolve into
the spacious calm of the concluding two minutes. Finally, the
mood of agitation returns in the last movement which close uneasily
with a frantic passage for the violin.
I have seen the Op.153 described as “a sunny, playful
work” but that is really only half the story. It opens
in neo-classical, Mozartian vein - momentum and elegance in
a serene G major with some arresting shifts of key. The slow
movement employs some exotic melody and harmony, perhaps the
result of the composer’s familiarity with North Africa.
It contains another serene cantabile dryly described by the
composer with his typical wit as “deadly dull as an Adagio
should be”. It is in fact teasingly beautiful, featuring
towards the end little spiralling, descending curlicue figures
on the first violin suggestive of acceptance and resignation.
After the slow, contemplative introductory Interlude, so typical
of Saint-Saëns’ classical forebears, cheerful, scampering
fugal passages alternate with the reflective slow theme to close
emphatically in a witty combination of plucked fifths and ascending
chords, ending on the tonic.
The Fine Arts Quartet is equal to all Saint-Saëns’
demands for swift changes of mood and technical virtuosity.
I have little to say about the quality of their playing beyond
observing that to my ears they are impeccable, producing singing
tone and unfailing homogeneity; I could not imagine finer advocacy
of these neglected quartets. They are not easy listening but
repeated encounters will, I am sure, pay dividends to the dedicated
chamber music enthusiast.