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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Quartet in B flat major (1875) [31.45] *
Piano Quintet in A minor (1854-55) [30.08] +
Barcarolle in F major (1897) [9.09] ~
Cristina Ortiz (piano)
Fine Arts Quartet (Ralph Evans (violin 1)*+; Efim Boico (violin 2)+~; Nicolò Eugelmi (viola); Robert Cohen (cello))
rec. Concert Hall, Performing Arts Centre, Purchase College, State University of New York, Purchase NY, 26-29 March 2012
NAXOS 8.572904 [71.12]

Surprisingly, recordings of Saint-Saëns smaller scale works - songs, chamber music and instrumental works - are still not exactly thick on the ground. That’s surprising considering their charm and accessibility. This new Naxos release is therefore most welcome.
 
The real gem here is Saint-Saëns’ gorgeously evocative Barcarolle - worth the cost of this CD alone. The opening cello material suggests the movement of the gondola’s oars while the piano emulates rippling waters before it breaks into romantic lyricism embroidered by the upper strings. More intense and more passionate material ensues and the waters become a little turbulent for a while; a lovers tiff, perhaps. Tensions soon ease, as the waters calm and the gondola passes peacefully by.
 
The equally accessible and charming Piano Quartet in B flat minor, considered to be a masterpiece of the chamber music repertory, is a sunny work. It is not far removed from the delicate, relaxed sound-world of Fauré. Its opening movement is beautifully lyrical, intimate but also outwardly optimistic. The second movement is, in contrast, more aggressive in tone with the piano’s opening chords pompous and assertive. The strings echo the mood but more mildly, then cheekily mock the imperious piano with mischievous chatter. The piano relaxes and there is fun for a little while before contrapuntal seriousness overtakes all. The quirky third movement starts merrily, all skipping and hopping with cadenzas for violin and piano. The finale is substantial and, unusually, significantly longer than any other movement. It contains material from the first and second movements and is optimistic and joyous. It has some extraordinary glissandi that are quite dizzying. The Fine Arts Quartet and the always reliable Cristina Ortiz deliver winning performances that are a joy to the ear.
 
The Piano Quintet was composed when Saint-Saëns was not yet twenty years old. It is a confident and assertive work presenting a big challenge to the pianist. The piano part is often cast in the role of a concerto solo instrument. The opening movement feels epic. It opens very affirmatively with strident piano chords. The strings’ contribution is more lyrical. The second movement moves from self-assertion to self-abnegation. It has a lovely hymn-like theme and, moves forward in reverent and quivering contemplation and supplication. The Third Presto movement carries straight on without a break. The mood now is one of merriment. Judging by the piano’s devilish runs and the strings’ shrieks something much less hallowed is being hinted at. The Allegro finale is led by a solemn cello into a long fugal theme that echoes the hymn-like material of the Andante.
 
A gorgeous programme of Saint-Saëns’ beguiling chamber music played with great authority and flair.
 
Ian Lace