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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, op. 112 (1899) [30:00]
Piano Quintet in A minor, op. 14 (1855) [29:33]
Quatuor Girard, Guillaume Bellom (piano)
rec. live, March 22, 2018 Fondation Singer-Polignac, Paris
B-RECORDS LBM018 [59:33]

Paris based label B-Records presents a new album performed by Quatuor Girard and pianist Guillaume Bellom containing Saint-SaŽns’ String Quartet No. 1 and Piano Quintet, works separated by almost forty years.

Saint-SaŽns enjoyed one of the longest careers in music history. When he was born in Paris in 1835 Mendelssohn had twelve more years to live. When he died in Algiers in 1921 aged eighty-six, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was already eight years old and Shostakovich, Britten and Bernstein had all been born. Sadly, by the time of his death Saint-SaŽns’ popularity in France had diminished significantly. It’s unfortunate that Saint-SaŽns has been largely celebrated for only a relatively small part of his prolific works; namely the Symphony No. 3 ‘Organ’, Cello Concerto No. 1, Danse macabre and The Swan from the Carnival of the Animals. However, the music of the multi-talented Saint-SaŽns has for some decades been undergoing a welcome resurgence. Now there is considerable choice in recordings of his chamber music, and I notice some of the lesser known of his thirteen operas other than Samson et Dalila are being recorded; recent examples being Les barbares, Ascanio and Proserpine.

Saint-SaŽns’ first major attempt in the field of chamber music the Piano Quintet was written in 1855 when he was aged only twenty. Some sources give the date of composition as early as 1853. Although both Louise Farrenc and George Onslow composed piano quintets in the 1840s in France, Saint-SaŽns’ is the first important score for this combination. The four-movement piece exudes a youthful confidence and swagger, the piano part leading the way, and it quickly established itself as a staple of the repertory. The piano plays a dominant virtuoso role, often in opposition to the string quartet, but also engaging in dialogue, ensemble, contrapuntal and unison passages. On this recording this predominantly stormy work is played with intelligence and alertness and there is a quasi-sacred feel to the Andante which is achieved most sympathetically. Overall, this is an unerringly compelling performance by Quatuor Girard and pianist Bellom shot through with rhythmic intensity and splendid attention to detail. In recordings of the Piano Quintet, the main competition comes from the Nash Ensemble with pianist Ian Brown recorded in 2004 on Hyperion. Worthy of praise, too, is the 2012 performance from the Fine Arts Quartet and pianist Cristina Ortiz on Naxos.

Refined, inventive and of the highest musical calibre, the String Quartets No. 1 and No. 2 are both products of the composer’s full maturity. Of the pair, it’s the String Quartet No. 1 from 1899 when he was in his mid-sixties that has been recorded here. A member of the Quatuor Girard explains, “the resulting stylistic and harmonic splendour makes this quartet a particular joy to play.” In the first movement Allegro, I am struck by the windswept, outdoor feeling that one might hear in the chamber music of Howells and Delius that was to come in the next twenty years. Notable in the outer movement Allegros and the Scherzo is the firm, focused playing of considerable intensity of this squally and passionately Romantic music. The Molto adagio movement, with its prominent part for the leader, beautifully played by Hugues Girard, is especially appealing, containing an aching yearning of engrossing concentration. This is high calibre playing from Quatuor Girard displaying a masterful penetration into the very heart of the scores. The main rivals to Quatuor Girard are the Medici String Quartet from 1997 on Koch Schwann and the 1984 account by Quatuor Viotti on Warner Classics Apex. Produced in 2009, the recording from the Fine Arts Quartet on Naxos is also worthy of consideration.

This recording was produced in live concert at Fondation Singer-Polignac, Paris. The sound quality has clarity, reasonable balance and although very close, doesn’t distort. There is very little extraneous audience noise and applause only after the Quintet. The extremely disappointing liner notes take the form of a very brief interview with Quatuor Girard and Guillaume Bellom; there is hardly about the works themselves. The notes are presented on one side of an annoying fold out poster format; on the other side is a black and white photograph of one of the chandelier lamps at Fondation Singer-Polignac.

The focused playing of the Quatuor Girard on this winning B-Records album makes a real impact; their stylish performances have great warmth and vivacity throughout. When I want to play these Saint-SaŽns chamber works, this is album I will reach for first.    

Michael Cookson

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