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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Suite algérienne, Op.60 [19:11]
Suite in D, Op.49 [20.03]
Suite in D minor, for cello and orchestra, Op.16bis [21:10]
Serenade in E flat, Op.15 [6:15]
Guillermo Pastrama (cello), Basque National Orchestra/Jun Märkl
rec. Sede Orquesta Sinfónica de Euskadi, Gipuzkoa, Spain, 2016
NAXOS 8.573732 [67:04]

Whether or not it is Naxos’s long-term intention to have every work of Saint-Saëns committed to disc, they are certainly heading in the right direction. His output encompassed an extraordinarily long creative span (82) and among the more than 400 works he completed (169 have opus numbers, Sabina Teller Ratner attempted a more comprehensive catalogue which reached 394, but confessed to this being “a work in progress”) is such a range of genres as to be almost beyond categorisation. He was, for example, the first major composer to write a film score, and few performers will not find something by him in the repertory of their instrument or voice. Possibly, however, he was at his most inventive when writing for orchestra, and while this disc merely describes itself as “Orchestral Works” one is inclined to think that there may be many dozen more discs to come which mine this huge and always refreshingly inventive field of his output. This disc includes music spanning over half-a-century of creative output.

All the works on this disc share the initial letter S (and there’s not a symphony among them). We have three Suites, one in its original guise, one in the composer’s own arrangement for orchestra, and a third in his arrangement for cello and orchestra. Rounding it all off is the divine little Serenade which organists should know as one of the eminently practical and infinitely imaginative pieces Saint-Saëns composed for their instrument in a chamber setting (the original was for organ, violin, viola and harp – which version you can hear on a Guild recording, GMCD7187) but which is here presented in the composer’s arrangement for orchestra. It loses none of the intimacy of the chamber version, and Jun Märkl is to be greatly credited with the beautifully discrete and subtle control of the Basque National Orchestra which manages to keep the work’s lovely sense of intimacy while reinvesting it in richer orchestral colours.

Perhaps the best-known work here is the Suite algérienne, the origins of which go back to 1873 when the composer was on one of his many visits to Algeria. That original piece went on to become the third movement of this four-movement Suite which was completed in 1880. Märkl is gloriously expansive in the opening movement, creating that sense of a land first seen on the horizon from a ship out at sea and gradually drawing closer, as the booklet notes so picturesquely suggest. The slightly Arabian feel of the second movement, derives, so the composer claimed, from authentic Arabian tunes heard during his time in Algeria. The gracefully sinuous third movement (“Reverie du Soir”) is given here a deliciously relaxed feel, the Basque National Orchestra clearly revelling in the little melodic fragments drifting up from the apparent stupor of a pizzicato accompaniment. For all his eminence as a leading figure in French musical circles both during his life and subsequently, Saint-Saëns rarely sounded as unashamedly patriotic as he does in the Suite’s final movement (“Marche Militaire Française”) where, for about the only time in his entire output, the spirit of Berlioz seems to be very much alive and well. And as if that was not enough, Märkl underlines the powerful influence of Rossini, whose immense popularity in the Paris of Saint-Saëns’s youth is often overlooked.

The Suite in D major’s origins as a work for solo harmonium are clear in the drone bass and the simple canonic writing of the first movement – even clothed in delicate orchestral colours, you can still picture the poor player pedalling away furiously to keep the bellows filled and maintain some stability of tone in these long held notes. The second movement again deals in thin, often polyphonic textures, with delicately placed chords and a slightly hymn-like theme – the sort of theme which in a more dramatic manifestation provided the great climactic moments of Saint-Saëns’ more famous orchestral works. Using dances from the keyboard suites of Rameau and other French 18th century composers, and with his almost classical love of order and restraint, Saint-Saëns imbues them with great individuality. The third movement “Gavotte” is a typical example with its gently rustic central section, but the next movement, “Romance” takes us out of the 18th century and into the world of rich, 19th century expressiveness in a movement of great beauty, which Märkl paces to perfection – it simply oozes unhurried elegance. The final is an invigorating toccata-like movement which breezes along cheerfully and is characterized here by some marvellously neat orchestral playing.

If it was Rameau behind the movements of the D major Suite, we think of Bach with the D minor one - the flowing cello line of the opening “Prélude” is reminiscent of Bach’s own Suites for the instrument, and several of the movements hark back to the 18th century instrumental suite. In its original guise, this was a work for cello and piano, and Märkl understands the essentially accompaniment role of the orchestra here, keeping it restrained and giving full prominence to the elegant and tasteful playing of Guillermo Pastrana. The booklet notes suggest that the second movement has “hints of Spain”, but for me it seems entirely Saint-Saëns, with its slightly exotic turns of phrase which seem more Arabian than Iberian. The “Gavotte” fits in so well that it is surprising to read that it was added only when Saint-Saëns orchestrated the work in 1919 – over half a century after the original Suite was composed. There is certainly a sense of greater integration between orchestra and cello in this movement, which Märkl shapes to absolute perfection. With the following “Romance”, we have what sounds for all the world like a fully-blown concerto slow movement in miniature, Pastrana eloquently expounding the luscious main theme with Märkl and his excellent team of players infinitely sensitive and delicate in their support. Possibly the only real outburst of virtuoso display on the disc comes with the final movement “Tarantelle”, and this is, in typical Saint-Saëns fashion, is no mere empty pyrotechnical display, but one based on the most elevated musical material.

Marc Rochester

Previous review: John Whitmore

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