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Hyperion Records

CDA67095 - Saint-Saëns: Cello Sonatas
Paysage—Colline boisée by Hippolyte Petitjean (1854-1929)
Sotheby’s Picture Library

Recording details: April 1999
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Arne Akselberg
Release date: October 1999
Total duration: 63 minutes 12 seconds

'A dramatic dialogue of considerable power … An enthusiastic recommendation.' (Gramophone)

'These artists radiate total conviction and a life-enhancing vitality and sensitivity' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'A worthwhile and enjoyable issue' (Classical Ireland)

Cello Sonatas
Allegro  [9'06]
Allegro moderato  [6'37]

Saint-Saëns today has become one of those composers known through only a handful of works, but his output was prodigious and there is a great deal of music waiting to be discovered beyond Carnival of the Animals. Unfortunately his long life led to him passing from fame as one of the most naturally gifted musicians ever, to someone who had become passé with the arrival of the likes of Debussy and Ravel. This probably explains the neglect of so much supremely crafted music.

As a classicist Saint-Saëns was attracted to sonata form throughout his life and the two cello sonatas illustrate well the consistency of his compositional style over the 33 years that separate them, there is always a French clarity about the writing and also an irresistible forward momentum which comes from a directness in the structural plan which harks back to Mozart and Beethoven.

By way of encores the disc offers two versions of the famous 'Swan' from Carnival of the Animals. The first was published by the composer before he allowed the release of the rest of Carnival (only published after his death), the second is an arrangement by pianist and Saint-Saëns pupil Godowsky for violin and piano, which has here been further transcribed for cello and piano.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Gabriel Fauré described his oldest and dearest friend as ‘the most complete musician we ever had, paralleled with the great masters of former days. His unlimited knowledge, his marvellous technique, his clear and exquisite sensitivity, his integrity, the variety and astonishing number of his works—do not all these justify his claim to recognition for all time?’

Born on 9 October 1835, at the Rue du Jardinet, Paris, Saint-Saëns’s gift was comparable to Mozart’s. His first composition, written at the age of four, was a ‘Galop’ for piano, his first song, Le Soir, was written when he was five, and his first symphony at the age of seventeen. At twenty-one he took up his first position as organist at the church of Saint-Merri, moving on in 1858 to l’Église de la Madeleine where he stayed for nineteen years. In the 1860s he taught for a few years at the École Niedermeyer, counting Fauré, Duparc and Messager among his students.

We are still fighting the misconception that Saint-Saëns’s music lacks depth. A newspaper critic in London reviewed a concert in December 1898, saying: ‘Saint-Saëns has certainly written more rubbish than anyone I can think of. It is the worst rubbishy kind of rubbish.’ Two years earlier the same critic seemed even more annoyed: ‘It is one’s duty to hate with all possible fervour the empty and ugly in art, and I hate Saint-Saëns the composer with a hate that is perfect.’ Saint-Saëns, however, once expressed hatred as ‘the greatest praise—be proud that you have deserved it’. But more importantly, the English public loved Saint-Saëns. From 1871, after seeking refuge in London during the violent spring of the Second Commune, he was a regular guest, appearing as conductor and pianist in various venues, not only in London. He played twice to Queen Victoria, and once to Queen Alexandra, writing the Coronation March for Edward VII. His famous Third Symphony was a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society. In 1893 he received a doctorate in music from Cambridge University together with his friend Tchaikovsky. A further doctorate was conferred by Oxford in 1913.

Saint-Saëns was described as a dark, nervous-looking man (‘most irritable’ according to Thomas Beecham) with delicate, almost sharp features, and according to Francesco Berger ‘a wonderful pair of alert, penetrating eyes. He has a remarkable speaking voice, loud and very shrill, and he utters so rapidly that it is difficult to follow him.’ Knowledgeable in a range of subjects and admired for his wit, he would have been greatly appreciated by someone like Oscar Wilde.

The Cello Sonata No 1 in C minor Op 32, from 1872, was the first result of the new Société Nationale de Musique, and therefore a work of significance for France. As in the case of Brahms’s First Symphony, the choice of key may owe something to Beethoven. The second movement is in the relative major key of E flat and originates from an organ improvisation in the church of Saint Augustin. Charles-Marie Widor told the story of the composition of the third movement. After attending the successful first performance of the Sonata, Saint-Saëns, surprised that his mother had made no comment on the piece, asked: ‘Don’t you have anything to say? Aren’t you pleased?’ Mme. Saint-Saëns then said she liked the first two movements, but not the finale. A few days later he triumphantly told her: ‘I have composed a new finale! Do you want to hear it?’ This is the finale we know today. It contains quotes from the first act of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine—possibly a favourite of Saint-Saëns’s mother’s. The Sonata is in good company in his output, preceded by the Introduction et rondo capriccioso Op 28 for violin and orchestra and Le rouet d’Omphale Op 31, considered the first French symphonic poem, and followed by the Cello Concerto No 1 in A minor Op 33.

The Cello Sonata No 2 in F major Op 123 is another gem, and a superb opportunity to break away from the repetitive cello repertoire. Romain Rolland described Saint-Saëns as a man ‘tormented by no passions’. Well, here is an opening of a sonata which shows what life could be like at seventy—the age Saint-Saëns was when he composed this work in 1905. Preceded by the lovely and inspired Second Cello Concerto, it was his first chamber music work for six years, since the String Quartet in E minor written for Ysaÿe.

‘Finally it is finished, this damned sonata! Will it please or not? That is the question.’ Thus Saint-Saëns wrote to his publisher, Jacques Durand. He was pleased about including a fugue as one of the variations of the second movement, while ‘the last movement will wake anyone who’s slept through the rest of the piece’. The Romanza is a highlight of all slow movements for cello and piano, and makes the composer’s maxim ‘Surtout, pas d’émotion’ (never too emotional, never making yourself too vulnerable) impossible to heed. ‘The Adagio will bring tears to your eyes’, he wrote to Durand. It leaves you with a feeling that you have been told something important, and is wonderful proof of Saint-Saëns’s emotional range.

Le Cygne (‘The Swan’) is an extract from something quite different. It is the thirteenth of fourteen movements for two pianos, string quintet (including double bass), flute, clarinet, xylophone and glockenspiel, forming Le Carnaval des animaux, Grande fantaisie zoologique. Written while on holiday in Austria in the year of the Third Symphony (1886, a remarkable year for French music: Franck’s Violin Sonata in A major, Fauré’s Piano Quartet in G minor, Lalo’s Symphony in G minor, D’Indy’s Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français and Messager’s Les deux pigeons), it is dedicated to his cellist friend Charles Lebouc, with whom he often appeared in chamber music concerts, together with the violinists Charles Lamoureux and Édouard Colonne, then not yet conductors. Meant as a joke, ‘ein musikalischer Spass’, music by Berlioz, Offenbach and Rossini is parodied. The animals—such as the lion, elephant, tortoise, kangaroos and pianists (!)—inhabit a movement each.

Godowsky’s transcription of Le Cygne was originally composed for solo piano on 16 August 1927. It was followed soon afterwards by a version for violin and piano published in May 1929. That version included some major changes in the piano part, offering a completely different ending. Both versions were transposed from Saint-Saëns’s original key of G major to G flat major, both making use of delicate and sensitive runs on the piano. The version recorded here is the one for violin and piano with the violin part played an octave lower. The piece was a favourite of Godowsky himself and was the last piece of music he ever heard, only days before his death in November 1938. It serves as a testament to his genius, and to his skill and perception of the beautiful.

His son Leo, Leopold Godowsky II, married Frances ‘Frankie’ Gershwin, the sister of George. Their son, Leopold Godowsky III, is the head of the Godowsky and Gershwin estates today, and we would like to dedicate this performance to him.

Mats Lidström © 1999

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