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Camille SAINT-SANS (1835-1921)
Cello Concerto No.1 Op.33 (1872) [20:08]
Cello Concerto No.2 Op.119 (1902) [18:04]
Le Carnaval des animaux (1886) [21:00]
Caprice-Valse Op.76 Wedding Cake (1885) [5:52]
Africa Op.89 (1891) [9:55]
Truls Mrk (cello), Louis Lortie (piano), Hlne Mercier (piano)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Jrvi
rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway, 15-18 June 2015
SACD/CD Surround/Stereo
Reviewed in surround

Re-visiting the work of Saint-Sans is always a pleasure. For some reason he is not very popular apart from the Third Symphony. Even the Carnival of the Animals is not played with the frequency it used to be. On receiving this disc for review, that was the first thing I played and what a lovely performance it is. Purists might prefer single strings in the orchestra to make it a chamber piece, as the composer seems to have intended, but the Bergen orchestra does not sound very large so there is a good balance of forces which allows the delicious orchestration of this small masterpiece to make its mark. Apart from the expected two pianos, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, piccolo, clarinets in C and B flat and xylophone we have the pleasure of the glass harmonica part actually played on that instrument - with a picture in the booklet to prove it. Given the popularity, at least until recently, of this grande fantaisie zoologique, it is amusing to discover in the informative notes that Saint-Sans banned all public performances except of Le Cygne until after his death, on the grounds that its satirical wit might damage his reputation as a serious composer. It was not given a proper premiere until 1922, the year following his death.

Louis Lortie and Hlne Mercier turn in a real performance, especially in the splendidly funny Pianistes movement where they achieve comic 'awkward beginner' status with great panache; they never quite get it together. Yet in the subsequent Fossiles movement they play with astonishing unanimity, as they do throughout the rest of the work. Aquarium sounds quite beautiful, aided by the above-mentioned glass harmonica. 'The Swan' gets the full luxury treatment with no less a cellist than Truls Mrk playing the two-and-a-half minute solo. Altogether a delight. Louis Lortie, the first piano in Carnaval, also gets solo status in the two small fillers that follow, the Caprice-Valse - Wedding Cake, dashed off with wonderful freedom, and the almost unknown fantasy Africa, a lively hotch-potch of tunes and pianistic display. I suppose the juxtaposition of the Carnival of the Animals and Africa triggered some marketing person to choose the inappropriate cover picture. It needs saying that the elephants and lions in Carnaval were in zoos, and the Fantaisie Africa is derived from North African climes and certainly nowhere near the Maasai Mara game park in Kenya.

Truls Mrk is the soloist in both cello concertos. The first, No.1 in A minor, is the famous one with the athletic opening flourish which returns to punctuate the one movement work at several points. It is a muscular piece but gives the cellist opportunity for lyricism too; indeed the central section is rather beautiful. The Concerto No.2 in D minor is a much later composition which is altogether tougher in content and indeed in technical requirements. It did not much impress the public or the critics and never gained popularity like the A minor. One unkind critic dubbed it 'bad music, well written', an accolade Saint-Sans had difficulty living down. Mrk is a wonderful performer and no part of either concerto phases him for one moment. With a lively and cleanly articulated accompaniment from Neeme Jrvi and the Bergen Philharmonic, recorded in the lovely acoustic of the Grieghallen, both pieces are a joy to hear.

The recording is a Chandos-best. The clarity and spaciousness are exemplary, giving the icing on this very appealing musical cake. It should be bought immediately by everyone.

Dave Billinge



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