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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75 (1885) [22:37]
Cello Sonata No. 1 in C minor, Op. 32 (1872) [21:03]
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 92 (1892) [32:05]
Renaud CapuÁon (violin), Edgar Moreau (cello), Bertrand Chamayou (piano)
rec. July 2020, Studio, Citť de la Musique et de la Danse, Soissons, France
ERATO 9029516710 [75:51]

This new Erato album will be one of many released to mark the centenary of the death of the multi-talented Parisian composer Camille Saint-SaŽns, which occurs in 2021.

Here, three celebrated French musicians have come together in the new Soissons conservatoire to honour and record Saint-SaŽns with the album ‘Sonates & Trio’ which comprises of three chamber works.

Although a prolific composer, Saint-SaŽns’ reputation tends to be entirely focused on those same handful of works that have been recorded countless times before. Probably the clearest examples are the Symphony No. 3 ‘Organ’; the Carnival of the Animals, and Danse macabre. With regard to his thirteen operas, Samson et Dalila is the only one typically staged today. Out of Saint-SaŽns’ large output, including his chamber works, there is a substantial number that, deserve a much wider circulation.

Owing to the insatiable passion for opera in France and Paris in particular, chamber music had never been a component part of the French music scene until the last few decades of the nineteenth century. In the early to mid-nineteenth century, very few French composers were writing chamber music. Georges Onslow, dubbed ‘The French Beethoven’, and Louise Farrenc are exceptions which spring to mind. When chamber music was played in France at that time, it was almost invariably written by composers of the Austro-German Romantic tradition, customarily Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven et al. In response, the Parisian concert society, the Sociťtť Nationale de Musique, was founded in 1871 by Saint-SaŽns and his circle of friends and musicians to inspire and promote modern French music. To further the cause, several other French societies were also formed.

Saint-SaŽns was at the vanguard in this new era of composing French chamber music and was a major contributor. The span from Saint-SaŽns’ first to his last chamber work approached seventy years, during which he wrote over forty such works. Not surprisingly, as he was a famed keyboard virtuoso the vast majority of his chamber works feature the piano, organ and, occasionally, a harmonium. Saint-SaŽns was eighteen when in 1853 he completed his first major chamber work, the Piano Quartet in E major, Op. posth (unpublished until 1992). In 1921, the year of his death, he completed his final three chamber works: Sonatas for Oboe, Op. 166; Clarinet, Op. 167 and Bassoon, Op. 168, part of his intended series of sonatas for all the standard woodwind instruments.

All three works on this album include a piano part with CapuÁon, Chamayou and Moreau choosing to record the First Violin Sonata, Op. 75; the First Cello Sonata, Op. 32 and Second Piano Trio, Op. 92, works which cover 20 years. Chamayou considers that these three works, although outstanding in quality, are seldom played and recorded. The pianist believes his generation of French players have an obligation to share Saint-SaŽns’ chamber music with audiences.

Opening the album is the first of Saint-SaŽns’ pair of violin sonatas. Written in 1885, the First Violin Sonata, Op. 75 is cast in four movements with the first two and last two melded together into two parts. At this time, the composer had reached the height of his powers with famous works such as the Carnival of the Animals and the Third Symphony ‘Organ’. Prior to this date, Saint-SaŽns’ had completed a number of concertante works featuring the violin, notably three concertos and the celebrated Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.

Combining together so adroitly, CapuÁon and Chamayou play with unwavering dedication. This performance feels instinctive and avoids excessive display. Pleasing and uplifting, the opening movement Allegro agitato generates nervous energy which contrasts with calmer passages. Following on, the tensionless, warmly comforting Adagio just glows with compassion. Marked Allegro moderato, the lithe third movement has great charm. Springing into life, the Allegro molto, Finale is notable for its substantial moto perpetuo writing. The red-hot vehemence the duo gives to the rapid stream of notes is exhilarating and creates a jubilant conclusion to the work.

Established recordings of the First Violin Sonata I admire are headed by Sarah Chang and Lars Vogt from 2003, who provide a passionate and sumptuously Romantic approach to the score with a heightened sense of engagement on EMI Classics review From 1999, there is another worthy account from Philippe Graffin and Pascal Devoyon a partnership responding with spirited, highly dedicated playing on Hyperion. One strongly senses the deep involvement of CapuÁon and Chamayou in this highly expressive, yet refined, new account which is worthy to stand alongside any of those recordings of the score.

Cello lovers owe a debt of gratitude to Saint-SaŽns who wrote a number of works featuring the instrument. Performed here by Edgar Moreau and Bertrand Chamayou is the stormy three movement First Cello Sonata in C minor, Op. 83 from 1872 the same year he went on to write his First Cello Concerto. In addition, there is a second Cello Sonata in F major, Op. 123, written 33 years later. Incidentally, an incomplete Third Cello Sonata in manuscript was discovered in 2015/16. Thought to originate around 1913-19 the manuscript contains just the first two movements, so it may conceivably be a draft, or the other movements are lost.

The occasion for the premiere of Saint-SaŽns’ First Cello Sonata in C minor was a recital at the new Sociťtť Nationale de Musique in Paris. Much of the writing of the C minor Sonata exploits the low register of the instruments. This dark coloration is said to be an expression of the composer’s enduring anguish in the aftermath of the overwhelming Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) and his grief following the death in 1872 of Charlotte Masson, a great-aunt to whom he was extremely close. Evidently, Saint-SaŽns’ mother was unimpressed by the Finale, so he quickly completed a new replacement Finale which quotes from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, a grand opera beloved of his mother.

Marked Allegro, the opening movement is resolutely played by Moreau and Chamayou. This serious writing gives a sense of swirling, as if disorientated, increasingly becoming sad and fearful then reviving to continue the journey. Built on a Chorale, the Andante tranquillo sostenuto is regal and stylish, evoking a strife-free environment. From point 3:40, the writing moves progressively forward at a measured pace with a sense of spent energy. In the Allegro moderatoFinale, the piano part is exacting, with the cello providing much of the melodic interest. Following a short squally opening section, Moreau and Chamayou provide playing of a dignified and convivial character. Prevailingly genial, the mood is only briefly interrupted by a handful of short sections of a stormy character which includes the closing section.

A justifiably popular choice for the C minor Sonata is the 2004 recording from Maria Kliegel and FranÁois-JoŽl Thiollier who recorded both Cello Sonatas with stylish playing and a profound depth of expression on Naxos. In addition, the account from Mischa Maisky and Daria Hovora displays a colourful palette and high-quality musicianship, recording the work in 1997 for Deutsche Grammophon (review). Here Moreau’s and Chamayou’s exceptional playing is warm and sincere, yet in this C minor Sonata their emotional response contains an engaging and elegant reserve in comparison to the heart-on-sleeve passion of Kliegel and Thiollier.

Following his First Piano Trio by some twenty-eight years, Saint-SaŽns’s Second Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 92 was begun in Algiers and completed in 1892 in Geneva. Around this time, Saint-SaŽns remained at the pinnacle of his creative output, having already completed seven of his operas including Samson and Delilah written some fourteen years previously, while his feted Symphony No. 3 ‘Organ’ was by then five years old.

Cast in an unusual five movement scheme, this substantial Second Trio in E minor is built on more complex writing than the earlier F major Trio, being more serious and emotional in substance. In the hands of CapuÁon, Chamayou and Moreau, this quite marvellous score is entirely engaging and full of allure. My standout movements are headed by the Allegretto where the players provide contrasts ranging from an edgy boldness to a soothing moderation. One senses the trio’s relish for the Schumannesque Andante con moto movement, their playing creating an ambrosial charm and beauty. My affection for the penultimate movement Grazioso, poco allegro music is based on its eupeptic demeanour strongly reminiscent of Schubert.

Saint-SaŽns’ pair of piano trios is well served by a number of first-rate recordings in which often both works are contained on the same album. In the Second Piano Trio, I greatly admire the 2004 recording from the Florestan Trio who provide meritable playing with conviction and liberal amounts of charm and expression on Hyperion review Praiseworthy, too, is the Trio Wanderer, a French ensemble, displaying its capacity to convey elegance and expression. Recorded in 2004, the Trio Wanderer account is on Harmonia Mundi review Richly accomplished, too, the Vienna Piano Trio’s 2012 account demonstrates total involvement in a compelling performance on MDG Gold review There is also an admirable account from the Joachim Trio with playing of freshness and a delightful sense of interplay, recorded in 1993 on Naxos. CapuÁon, Chamayou and Moreau are completely at home in this E minor Piano Trio and provide a quite ravishing performance as good as any recording I know.

This Saint-SaŽns album has been successfully recorded for Erato in the studio of the Conservatoire named Citť de la Musique et de la Danse at Soissons. The engineering team provide a most realistic sound with a warm-edged clarity and an ideal balance. Music writer Tully Potter has written the helpful booklet essay. Compared to a muscular, fiery and extravagant Romanticism sometimes adopted on recordings the approach of CapuÁon, Chamayou and Moreau produces a more polished, lighter touch, yet the results are entirely captivating. This is eminently stylish Saint-SaŽns playing of sheer beauty which leaves a memorable impression. I hope for more albums of French Romantic music from this remarkably talented trio.

Michael Cookson

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