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Saint-Saens chamber INDE149
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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Chamber Music with Wind
Les solistes de l'orchestre de Paris
Pascal Godard, Laurent Wagschal (piano)
rec. c. 2009 Temple Saint-Marcel, Paris
INDESENS RECORDS INDE149 [63:35 + 58:04]

To mark the centenary in 2021 of the death of the multi-talented Parisian composer Camille Saint-SaŽns, the Indťsens label has reissued its double album ‘Chamber Music with Winds’. Recorded, it seems, around 2009 or maybe earlier, there are seventeen works on this collection featuring the substantial Septet for brass, woodwind, strings and piano, the Caprice quartet for three woodwind and piano, and the Tarentelle for two woodwind and piano. The remaining works are duos, namely three woodwind sonatas and eleven short, one-movement pieces for single solo wind instrument with piano.

All the recordings on this 2021 album have been released previously by Indťsens and more than once. In addition, there are earlier Indťsens recordings of six Saint-SaŽns chamber works on a 2012 release entitled ‘Musique de chambre avec vents’ (INDE019). Recorded in 1957 and 1976, they are entirely different recordings from those on this new reissue, although both are performed by Les solistes de l'orchestre de Paris.

In the early to mid-nineteenth century, very few French composers were writing chamber music. In France and Paris in particular, owing to the insatiable passion for stage works such as opera and ballet, chamber music hadn’t become a component part of the French music scene. When chamber music was played in France it was almost invariably works by composers of the Austro-German Romantic tradition, customarily Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven et al. In response, the Parisian concert society known as the Sociťtť nationale de musique was founded in 1871 by Saint-SaŽns and his circle to inspire and promote modern French music. To further the cause, several other French chamber music societies were also formed such as the Sociťtť de musique de chambre pour instruments ŗ vent, founded in 1879 by Paul Taffanel.

As a leading figure in French Romantic music, Saint-SaŽns was at the vanguard in this new era of composing chamber music and became a major contributor and a performer too. The span from Saint-SaŽns’ first to his last chamber work approached seventy years, during which he wrote over forty such works. Saint-SaŽns was in his teens when he wrote his first chamber work the Piano Quartet in E major (1853, unpublished until 1992). In 1921 the year of his death the eighty-five-year-old completed his final three chamber works the Sonatas for oboe, Op. 166; clarinet, Op. 167 and bassoon, Op. 168. As he was a famed keyboard virtuoso, it’s no surprise that almost all of Saint-SaŽns’ chamber works feature the piano and very occasionally an organ or harmonium. There are also a number of chamber works with strings, notably the two String Quartets and those for strings and piano such as the Piano Quintet, Op. 14, Piano Quartet, Op. 41 and pairs of Piano Trios, Violin Sonatas and Cello Sonatas plus several other works including the Berceuse, Op. 38 and Triptyque, Op. 136. Unlike many composers, Saint-SaŽns didn’t ignore works for brass or woodwind instruments; he treated them just as seriously as works for strings.

On the first CD containing ten works written during 1857-1915, the centrepiece is the rightly lauded Septet (Septuor) for trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, double bass and piano. Saint-SaŽns completed the four-movement score in 1881 for …mile Lemoine, founder of La Trompette, the Parisian music society that promoted French chamber works. Dominating the sound picture in the Septet are both Frťdťric Mellardi’s trumpet with its attractive, rounded tone and pianist Laurent Wagschal, with the five strings having to take a back seat.

In 1887 Saint-SaŽns wrote the Caprice sur des airs danois et russes, a quartet for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano to take on a tour of St. Petersburg. He dedicated the single movement score to Princess Dagmar of Denmark who became Empress of Russia in 1881 as the wife of Emperor Alexander III. Employing a three-part design in the Caprice, Saint-SaŽns delightfully and adeptly includes a Danish theme in the opening section, an English inspired folk-song in the middle and a Russian theme in the closing section. It is an engaging if undemanding work; Saint-SaŽns successfully contrasts Wagschal’s piano sonorities with the three woodwind instruments of flautist Vincent Lucas, oboist Alexandre Gattet and clarinettist Olivier Derbesse.

Written in 1857, the Tarentelle in A minor for clarinet, flute and piano (or orchestra), a product of Saint-SaŽns’ early twenties, was played privately at the Paris home of Rossini. Pianist Wagschal in this joyous and witty score is joined by flutist Lucas and clarinettist Olivier Derbesse, who combine splendidly and demonstrate a most secure ensemble.

The remaining seven works on the first CD are short, single-movement pieces for a range of solo instruments with piano. In 1874 Saint-SaŽns wrote his Romance for flute and piano, given here by flutist Lucas, and there are also two separate Romances for French horn and piano, Op. 26 in 1874 and Op. 67 in 1885 performed by Andrť Cazlet. Saint-SaŽns wrote both an Adagio et Andante and an Offertoire works that are scored for horn and organ but not included here. A late work from 1915 is the Cavatine for trombone and piano, beautifully played by soloist Guillaume Cottet-Dumoulin.

There are two very short pieces, The Swan and the Elephant from Le Carnaval des animaux. These are much-loved pieces, especially the enduringly popular The Swan, noted for its affecting cello solo and the Elephant with solo double bass both of which have been arranged and transcribed for other instruments numerous times. Here, they are played using transcriptions for contrabassoon and piano, both outstandingly played by soloist Yves d'Hau, although the sound of the contrabassoon certainly doesn’t work for me in The Swan; the instrument is much better suited to the Elephant. The final piece on the first disc from the grand opera Samson et Dalila is Delilah’s Act Two aria Softly awakes my heart (Mon cœur s'ouvre ŗ ta voix). This beautiful aria appears here in a transcription for bassoon and piano played by bassoonist Marc Trťnel accompanied by Wagschal.

The second CD features three sonatas and also four short single movement pieces, which are among the last works Saint-SaŽns wrote. His plan was to write a sonata for each of the standard woodwind instruments that he considered woefully neglected. In 1921 he completed his Sonatas for oboe, Op. 166, the bassoon, Op. 168 and the much-admired masterpiece for clarinet, Op. 167, although he didn’t live to write those intended for flute and cor anglais. In their respective sonatas, Alexandre Gattet (oboe), Philippe Berrod (clarinet) and Marc Trťnel (bassoon) are each accompanied by pianist Pascal Godart and excel, providing unfailingly adept playing that I find entirely convincing. These are all first-class works which undeniably demonstrate that Saint-SaŽns wasn’t short of inspiration in his autumnal years.

The four-remaining works on CD two are headed by the Prayer (PriŤre), originally written for cello and organ in 1920. This version for bassoon and piano is engagingly played with elegance by the well-matched duo of Marc Trťnel and Wagschal. Saint-SaŽns completed his rarely encountered Odelette for flute and orchestra in 1920. There are several versions of how Saint-SaŽns arrived at the title Odelette. It seems that some Islamic themes which captivated and inspired Saint-SaŽns are woven into the writing. Presented here is the composer’s own transcription of Odelette for flute and piano, gratifyingly played by flautist Vincent Lucas with Wagschal.

The final two works on the second CD are the Fantaisie arrangement and The Swan transcription. Originally written in 1857 for organ, the Fantaisie in E flat major was used for the inauguration of the newly restored Saint-Merri organ. Likely by Henri Busser this arrangement of the Fantaisie for cornet and piano is boldly played by renowned trumpeter Eric Aubier and pianist Pascal Gallet. Now part of the brass instrument repertoire, for my taste the Fantaisie lacks both charm and inspiration. Undoubtedly Saint-SaŽns’ most popular work The Swan from The Carnival of the Animals is given here in a transcription for flugelhorn and piano. Beautifully played here by Aubier and pianist Gallet, the celebrated melody works extremely well on the flugelhorn and conveys a touching, yearning quality.

Throughout this seventeen-work collection top marks are due to the players, described as first soloists of the renowned Orchestre de Paris, together with the three piano soloists Laurent Wagschal, Pascal Godart and Pascal Gallet. Overall, the listener is treated to accomplished, enthusiastic and consistent performances, and any lapses of concentration are extremely minor. Having now listened to this collection several times, I feel that the performances are sincere and thoughtfully considered, providing the necessary balance of style and expression that best suits this music. The booklet essay does provide some information on most of the works although it is basic and lacking in detail. Regrettably there is nothing given at all for both the Fantaisie for cornet and The Swan for flugelhorn. In some cases, the names of those preparing the transcriptions or arrangements are not given and deserve acknowledgment.

For those looking for albums of Saint-SaŽns chamber works my stand-out recording is the 2005 double album from the Nash Ensemble recorded in 2004 at Henry Wood Hall, London and issued on Hyperion. Marvellously played and recorded, the set of eight chamber works comprises of the Bassoon Sonata, Clarinet Sonata, Oboe Sonata, Septet, Tarentelle for flute, clarinet and piano, Caprice sur des airs danois et russes, and both the Piano Quintet, Op. 14 and Piano Quartet, Op. 41. The inclusion of the substantial Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet together with consistently glorious and cultured woodwind playing make this a clear first choice in this repertoire. Another admirably played and well recorded chamber collection is from the Ensemble Villa Musica, offering five woodwind works: the Bassoon Sonata, Clarinet Sonata, Oboe Sonata, the Romance for flute and piano, and the Caprice sur des airs danois et russes a quartet for woodwind and piano. Released by MDG Gold the single CD was recorded in 1991 at FŁrstliche Reitbahn, Bad Arolsen.

The main advantage of this impressive, reissued double album is the bringing together of Saint-SaŽns’ ‘Chamber Music with Winds’ with some wind arrangements. Given its first-rate performances and satisfying sound quality, Saint-SaŽns’ admirers who don’t already have these recordings will find this reissue hard to ignore. 

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Gwyn Parry-Jones

CD 1
1-4. Septet (Septuor) for trumpet, strings & piano, Op. 65 [17:20]
5. Romance for French horn & piano, Op. 36 [3:26]
6. Tarentelle for clarinet, flute & piano, Op. 6 [6:36]
Two movements from The Carnival of the Animals (Le Carnaval des animaux) transcribed for contrabassoon & piano:
7. The Swan (Le cygne) [2:50]
8. Elephant (L'ťlťphant) [1:22]
9. Romance for flute & piano, Op. 37 [6:38]
10. Cavatine for trombone & piano, Op. 144 [4:38]
11. Romance for French horn & piano, Op. 67 [6:52]
12. Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs (Caprice sur des airs danois et russes) for flute, oboe, clarinet & piano, Op. 79 [10:22]
13. Delilah’s act 2 aria Softly awakes my heart (Mon cœur s'ouvre ŗ ta voix) from grand opera Samson and Delilah (Samson et Dalila), Op. 47 transcribed for bassoon & piano [2:55]
CD 2
1-4. Clarinet Sonata, Op. 167 [15:32]
5. Prayer (PriŤre) for bassoon & piano, Op. 158 [5:52]
6-8. Oboe Sonata, Op. 166 [10:57]
9. Odelette for flute & piano, Op. 162 [6:45]
10-13. Bassoon Sonata, Op. 168 [11:32]
14. Fantaisie for cornet & piano [5:02]
15. The Swan (Le cygne) transcribed for flugelhorn & piano from Le carnaval des animaux [2:52]

CD 1
Laurent Wagschal - (all piano works)
Les solistes de l'orchestre de Paris:
Vincent Lucas - flute (tr. 6, 9, 12)
Alexandre Gattet - oboe (tr. 12)
Olivier Derbesse - clarinet (tr. 6, 12)
Frťdťric Mellardi - trumpet (tr. 1-4)
Andrť Cazlet - French horn (tr. 5, 11)
Guillaume Cottet-Dumoulin - trombone (tr. 10)
Marc Trťnel - bassoon (tr. 13)
Yves d'Hau - contrabassoon (tr. 7, 8)
Eiichi Chijiiwa & Angťlique Loyer - violins (tr. 1-4)
Ana Bela Chabes - viola (tr. 1-4)
Emmanuel Gauguť - cello (tr. 1-4)
Bernard Cazauran - double bass (tr. 1-4)
CD 2
Pascal Godart - piano (tr. 1-4, 6-8, 10-13)
Laurent Wagschal - piano (tr. 5, 9)
Pascal Gallet - piano (tr. 14, 15)
Les solistes de l'orchestre de Paris:
Vincent Lucas - flute (tr. 9)
Alexandre Gattet - oboe (tr. 6-8)
Philippe Berrod - clarinet (tr. 1-4)
Eric Aubier - cornet & flugelhorn (14 & 15)
Marc Trťnel - bassoon (tr. 5, 10-13)

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