Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, op. 112 (1899) [33:50]
String Quartet No. 2 in G major, op. 153 (1919) [28:47]
Fine Arts Quartet (Ralph Evans, Efim Boico (violins); Nicolò Eugelmi (viola); Wolfgang Laufer (cello))
rec. 26-28 October 2009, Wittelm Monastery Library, The Netherlands
NAXOS 8.572454 [62:48]
 
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.  

Ralph Moore 

Not easy listening but repeated encounters will pay dividends to the dedicated chamber music enthusiast.