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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, for two pianos, flute, clarinet, glass harmonica, xylophone and strings (1886) [21:00]
Caprice-Valse in A flat major for piano and orchestra, Op. 76 Wedding-Cake (1885)* [5:52]
Africa in G minor for piano and orchestra, Op. 89 (1889/91)* [9:55]
Truls Mrk (cello)
Louis Lortie* (piano), Hlne Mercier (piano)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Jrvi
rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway, 15-18 June 2015

Thankfully, for the last couple of decades the music of the multi-talented Saint-Sans has been undergoing a resurgence of interest. All too frequently the primary attention has tended to focus on those same few scores that have been recorded many times before. Generally this eminently approachable Chandos release could be said to fall into that category. Nevertheless the sheer quality of the writing shines through like a beacon. In philosophical mood Saint-Sans once stated “The artist who does not feel completely satisfied by elegant lines, by harmonious colours, and by a beautiful succession of chords does not understand the art of music.”

Saint-Sans composed several scores for the cello and his Concerto No. 1 from 1872 is the first and finest of his two concertos for the instrument, rightly regarded as one of the best loved cello concertos in the repertoire. The sunny and colourful score is compact in structure and plays in one continuous movement with three distinct sections. Truls Mrk's keen assurance is palpable and I especially enjoyed his sensitive account of the yearning Allegretto con moto.

Composed in 1902 for the Dutch cellist Joseph Hollmann the Cello Concerto No. 2 came some thirty years after the first. Compared to the first the themes in the Concerto No. 2 are not acknowledged as having the same memorable stamp; consequently it has been overshadowed despite its initial attractions. This notwithstanding it is greatly admired by cellists and provides the soloist with considerable technical challenges. Cast in four parts it is presented in two large sections. Mrk excels in conveying a deep brooding quality to the Andante sostenuto and the Allegro non troppo is played with a restless quality and with considerable forward momentum.

A showpiece work, the Saint-Sans Cello Concerto No. 1 has been recorded often over the years. Consequently there are versions by many of the world’s finest performers. The Cello Concerto No. 2 has fared rather less well and consequently recordings, not to mention sets of both concertos, are less numerous. Mrk plays both Concertos with expression and verve and with ample tenderness in the slow passages. However, my first choice accounts remain those from Steven Isserlis for his gracious expression and firm control on BMG/RCA Red Seal. Isserlis recorded the Cello Concerto No. 1 in 1992 with the LSO under Michael Tilson Thomas at Blackheath Concert Halls, London and the Concerto No. 2 in 1999 with NDR SO under Christoph Eschenbach at Musikhalle, Hamburg.

Saint-Sans deliberately avoided publishing The Carnival of the Animals during his lifetime. Realising the sheer charm and potential popularity of the score he did not wish to be remembered only for this rather lowbrow work, fearing for his reputation as a serious composer. Of the fourteen movements Saint-Sans only permitted the penultimate one, The Swan to be published in his lifetime. It has gone on to achieve great popularity. It’s an entertaining work to see performed in concert in the version with spoken text. I have fond memories of Sir Mark Elder narrating Ogden Nash’s clever set of humorous verses with the Hall under Andrew Gourlay at the Bridgwater Hall, Manchester in 2011. Piano duo Louis Lortie and Hlne Mercier with the excellent Bergen ensemble give a rewarding and engaging performance of this delightful score; as good as any I have heard.

Written in 1885 Saint-Sans scored his Caprice-Valse for piano and strings nicknamed ‘Wedding-Cake’for the marriage of pianist Madame Caroline Montigny-Rmaury. Typical of the composer’s elegant response to his art the Caprice-Valse is an enchanting jewel and beautifully written. One of his four small concertante works for piano and orchestra Saint-Sans wrote the single movement fantasy Africa in 1889/91. Often described as a “potpourri on Arabic themes” the majority of the work was written during a cruise to Ceylon that returned via Egypt. Brimming with confidence Lortie plays the enjoyable Caprice-Valse and Africa with evident warmth and affection. Nevertheless, I still prefer the remarkable Stephen Hough and the CBSO under Sakari Oramo recorded in 2000 at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on Hyperion.

Under Jrvi the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra is richly lyrical, playing with splendid freshness and character. I find the solo contributions exceptional with subtle colouring, beautifully textured. Recorded as recently as 2015 at Grieghallen, Bergen the sound engineers provide good clarity generally and as between soloists and orchestra. I am not too enthusiastic about the dynamic range; the volume can take you by surprise after you have been tempted to turn up the quieter passages.

This Saint-Sans five work collection on Chandos is exceedingly appealing; guaranteed to delight and entertain.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Dave Billinge



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