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Hyperion Records

CDA67431/2 - Saint-SaŽns: Chamber Music
Afternoon in the Park by Hippolyte Petitjean (1854-1929)
Phillips Fine Art / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: July 2004
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Release date: May 2005
DISCID: A80F3E0C A610160C
Total duration: 132 minutes 40 seconds


'…this is a set of sheer delight: let's hear it for imaginative conservatism' (Gramophone)

'These are full-blooded performances, packed with energy and colour, and every corner is turned under complete control' (BBC Music Magazine)

'It is repertoire that really shows up the ensemble's strengths and its ability to encompass the richest ensemble-playing, as well as the exposed solo work required of the accompanied sonata medium … there is plenty of mellifluously drawn melodic writing, playful harmonic twists and textural ingenuity to enjoy' (The Daily Telegraph)

'It is a charming collection, beautifully played; this is precisely the repertoire in which the Nash excels … The opening cantilena of the Oboe Sonata is positively rapturous … just as the mysterious fugal introduction to the finale of the early Piano Quintet [is] fabulously played by cellist Paul Watkins and violist Lawrence Power' (The Guardian)

'[The] Sonatas are all played with an ideal combination of infectious virtuosity and phrasal sensitivity to have these all-too-rarely heard works come dancing off the page. Sensational flautist Philippa Davies is on hand to add her own special brand of artistry … and producer Andrew Keener and engineer Simon Eadon typically capture the proceedings with their usual magical blend of warmth and clarity, making this an issue to cherish. The Nash Ensemble could hardly wish for a finer musical testimonial in this their fortieth birthday year' (International Record Review)

'a splendid two-disc set … mounted with that special sparkle they always bring to French repertoire' (The Times)

'A legend in his own lifetime, Saint-Saëns tantalises us with distinctive, lively and imaginative pieces, explored and played with terrific vivacity and style' (Classic FM Magazine)

'The Nash Ensemble, a British organisation that alters its makeup as the situation requires, has a long and distinguished history on record. This latest offering continues the tradition. Warmly recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

Chamber Music
Allegretto  [7'15]
Allegro  [9'55]
Presto  [4'58]
Andantino  [3'26]
Allegretto  [5'10]
Molto allegro  [2'26]
Allegretto  [4'21]
Allegro animato  [2'10]
Lento  [4'22]

This exciting new double album from The Nash Ensemble presents an enchanting programme of chamber music by Camille Saint-Saëns, that quintessential figure of nineteenth-century French music-making.

At the heart of the set come the Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet, composed in 1875 and 1855, respectively. The quintet exudes a youthful confidence and swagger, the piano part leading the way, while the quartet quickly established itself as a staple of the repertory. Saint-Saëns was a passionnate promoter of his own music – being all too aware that the name of a contemporary composer on a concert bill represented the kiss of death – and brought about many performances of his own works (and those of his contemporaries, establishing the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871 for this purpose). One result of this passion for which we must be especially grateful was that Saint-Saëns frequently wrote for the ‘forces available’, and this set opens with a rare septet for trumpet, string quintet and piano (the result of a playful commission from a chamber music society known as ‘La Trompette’), a jaunty work embracing seventeenth-century dance forms within a neoclassical style (perhaps fortunately, the composer appears never to have fulfilled his original promise to the society to compose a piece for guitar and thirteen trombones).

In the last year of his life Saint-Saëns set out to compose sonatas for each of the main woodwind instruments and piano. Those for cor anglais and flute were never written, but the sonatas for oboe, bassoon and clarinet here join with a tarantella (for flute, clarinet and piano) and a caprice (delightfully combining Danish and Russian themes and the sonorities of flute, oboe, clarinet and piano) to conclude the programme.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Camille Saint-SaŽns epitomizes French music of the nineteenth century. Versatile and prolific, he contributed voluminously to every genre of French musical literature and influenced musical life throughout the country. Saint-SaŽns qualified, according to his devoted friend and student Gabriel Faurť, as the most Ďcompleteí musician of his time: as composer, pianist, organist, conductor, teacher, critic, essayist, poet and playwright he participated in every facet of intellectual life. Honoured and acclaimed both at home and abroad, he became a legend during his lifetime.

Despite this widespread recognition, in the years after his death his music suffered an eclipse, as changing fashions in the style, basis and philosophy of music during the aftermath of two world wars temporarily stamped Saint-SaŽns as an anachronism. Nevertheless, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, a new assessment of this flawless and abundant creator is being heralded. He is increasingly viewed as a consolidator and innovator.

ĎI like nothing better than chamber musicí, Saint-SaŽns confided to the violinist JohannŤs Wolff on 25 April 1894, and the medium played an important role in his music. From his earliest attempts at composition a steady stream of imaginative works flowed until his final farewell to the world with the three woodwind sonatas of 1921. After creating works that he and his friends performed, he tried to have them played as frequently as possible: ĎI take care of my works because I consider them my children and that it is my duty to look after their interestsí, he wrote.

By the age of seven he had already written a mťlodie and a sonata for violin and piano which he dedicated to Antoine Bessems, a Belgian violinist and composer who gave concerts in Paris during the years 1843 to 1866, for some of which he invited Saint-SaŽns to participate as pianist. By 1848 Saint-SaŽns had already attempted a trio and another violin sonata as well as numerous piano compositions. A piano quartet in three movements occupied him from October 1851 to May 1853.

Saint-SaŽns composed his Tarentelle in A minor Op 6, for flute and clarinet accompanied by orchestra or piano, in 1857 for his colleagues flautist Louis Dorus and clarinettist Adolphe Leroy, with whom he performed the work for the first time on 28 April 1857 at Salle Pleyel. So well received was the piece that Rossini requested that Saint-SaŽns play the work with the two original soloists at one of the regular musical evenings at his palatial home in Paris. It was repeated many times by these two gentlemen in the following years, sometimes accompanied by the piano and often by orchestra. By 1873 the work was sufficiently well known that it was played in New York by the Theodore Thomas orchestra; there were further performances in Monaco, Russia and Cuba. The energetic, playful exchanges between flute and clarinet and the capricious swirling motion are reminiscent of Mendelssohn, this perpetual motion being relieved by the mellifluous middle section in dialogue and unison.

The Piano Quintet in A minor Op 14, Saint-SaŽnsís earliest cyclic composition, was composed in 1855, but only published ten years later. It is dedicated to the composerís great-aunt Charlotte Gayard Masson, who lived with him and his mother and gave him his first piano lessons. The piano plays a dominant virtuoso role, often in opposition to the string quartet, but also engaging in dialogue, ensemble, contrapuntal, and unison passages.

The first movement, Allegro moderato e maestoso in common time, provides a chordal introduction, repeated within the movement, followed by the statement and development of three portentous themes, and a recapitulation featuring a cadenza for the piano. The lyrical second movement, Andante sostenuto in F major in 3/8 time, presents a serious, noble chorale-like theme on the piano answered by the strings, joined by a second cantabile theme initiated by the viola followed by the quartet, and then a reprise of the first theme. The third movement, an A minor Presto in 6/8, consists of a moto perpetuo using two active motifs, a more expressive middle section, and a coda suggesting the opening of the quintet. The final movement, Allegro assai, ma tranquillo in A major, contains a fugato built on a scale-like theme for the strings followed by a second lyrical theme for the full ensemble, then enmeshes the two contrapuntally, and finally invokes the second theme of the first movement. This youthful work projects a frank and confident mood.

Insufficient opportunities for performance of French instrumental works troubled Saint-SaŽns, who wrote that Ďa French composer who was bold enough to venture in the field of instrumental music had no other means of getting his works performed than by arranging a concert himself and inviting his friends and the criticsí. He perceived that the name of a living French composer on a programme made everyone flee. Though chamber music societies were numerous, they only performed Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and occasionally, to be daring, Schumann.

To remedy this situation, Saint-SaŽns established with his friend Romain Bussine on 25 February 1871 the Sociťtť Nationale de Musique to give performances of works exclusively by living French composers. Cťsar Franck, Alexis de Castillon, Ernest Guiraud, Jules Massenet, Gabriel Faurť, …douard Lalo and Henri Duparc immediately joined the society.

The quartet form presented a challenge to Saint-SaŽns. As early as 1875, Saint-SaŽns composed his Piano Quartet in B flat major Op 41, which remained his last foray into this medium. This quartet was actually the second complete piano quartet composed by Saint-SaŽns. In 1851Ė3 he had written a Piano Quartet in E major which he performed but which was not published until it was recently resurrected and published posthumously in 1992. Saint-SaŽns himself premiered the Op 41 Quartet on 6 March 1875 at Salle Pleyel with Pablo de Sarasate, Alfred Turban and Lťon Jacquard. The year 1875 marked several momentous occasions in the life of Saint-SaŽns: his marriage to Marie-Laure Truffot, the birth of his son Andrť, the composition of his biblical poem Le Dťluge and the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the first performance of his symphonic poem Danse macabre.

The cyclical Piano Quartet continues to be a staple in the repertoire for violin, viola, cello and piano. The majestic opening movement, Allegretto in common time, provides two themes of different character: the first somewhat improvisational in feeling with its interchanges between the piano and strings, the second an undulating melody more lyrical in nature. These themes are developed and repeated with the first bringing the movement to a pianissimo close. The slower second movement, Andante maestoso ma con moto in G minor, contrasts two motifs, the forceful rhythmic one enunciated by the piano and the chorale-like one in the strings, providing much dialogue, fugal entries, and imitations between the various voices in learned fashion. The third movement, Poco allegro piý tosto moderato in D minor in 6/8, a scherzo in rondo form, starts in unison motion with unusual rhythmic effects increasing the tempo to Prestissimo and evaporating the sound to a pianissimo at the end. The grand Allegro finale is a spirited fantasy-like movement in duple time with many skilful contrapuntal effects. Elements of the theme of the Andante are included in the recapitulation, while in the coda the two themes of the Allegretto are joined by the chorale-like theme of the Andante and engage in a joyful fugato. Once again, as in the quintet he composed twenty years earlier, Saint-SaŽns is inspired by cyclic form.

The Septet in E flat major Op 65, composed for the unusual combination of trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, double bass and piano, was written at the request of …mile Lemoine for his chamber music society which he whimsically entitled ĎLa Trompetteí. This society was founded in 1867 and Saint-SaŽns regularly performed there along with other well known musicians of the time including Louis Diťmer, Martin-Pierre Marsick, and Isidor Philipp. In this neoclassical work employing seventeenth-century dance forms, the two violins, viola and cello parts were often doubled in performance with an additional string quartet. To Lemoine, Saint-SaŽns confessed in October 1907: ĎWhen I think how much you pestered me to make me produce, against my better judgment, this piece that I did not want to write and which has become one of my great successes, I never understood why.í Lemoine had implored Saint-SaŽns for many years to compose a work combining the trumpet with the instruments ordinarily available to the society. Jokingly he would respond that he could create a work for guitar and thirteen trombones. In 1879 he presented to Lemoine a piece entitled Prťambule as a Christmas present and played it at their first concert in January 1880. Pleased with the result, he promised that he would complete the work with the Prťambule as the first movement. True to his word he performed the complete composition for the first time on 28 December 1880 with himself at the piano, Sylvain Teste with the trumpet, the quartet Ė Martin-Pierre Marsick, Guillaume Rťmy, Louis van Waefelghem and Jules Delsart, doubled with excellent effect by a second quartet of …mile Mendels, Austruy, JohannŤs Wolff and Louis Heggyesi Ė and the double bass played by Lucien Dereul. The four movements, labelled Prťambule, Menuet, IntermŤde and Gavotte et Final, reveal the classical proclivity of the composer. However, the ingenious integration of the trumpet, namesake of this chamber music organization, with the string quintet and piano, is rare in musical literature.

The Caprice sur des airs danois et russes Op 79 was specially composed for Paul Taffanel (flute), Georges Gillet (oboe), and Charles Turban (clarinet) who joined Saint-SaŽns for a series of seven concerts organized by the Russian Red Cross in St Petersburg during Easter Week of April 1887. He dedicated the work to the Tsarina, Maria Feodorovna, who had been born Princess Sophie Fredericka Dagmar, daughter of the King of Denmark, and hence the reason why Danish and Russian themes, supplied to him by musicologist Julien Tiersot, were incorporated. The interesting effects produced by the arrangement of the instruments greatly pleased the court, and although the piece had not been published at its premiere, Saint-SaŽns made few modifications for the final version. The great success prompted the same group to repeat their performance in London two months later. The Caprice exploits the wonderful hues and nuances of the woodwind palette: both the expressive and the mournful are interspersed with sparkling passages for the piano. The lower register of the clarinet and bassoon are often used with great effect in the articulation of the authentic Russian and Danish melodies. The tempo varies from lively, energetic sections to slow, expressive, improvisational themes in duple and triple meters, played in solo and ensemble combinations.

Saint-SaŽnsís most durable contributions to the chamber literature have been his sonatas: two for violin and piano, two for cello and piano, and one each for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, each with piano accompaniment. It was during the last year of his life that Saint-SaŽns conceived the idea of writing a sonata for each of the woodwind instruments, thus enhancing their repertoire and providing three monumental works for the sonata literature. Starting with Oboe Sonata in D major Op 166, dedicated to Louis Bas, an extraordinary oboe virtuoso, he continued with the Clarinet Sonata in E flat major Op 167, dedicated to Auguste Perier, a fine player of astonishing technique, and lastly, with the Bassoon Sonata in G major Op 168, written for Lťon Letellier, the first bassoon of the Opťra and the Sociťtť des Concerts. Saint-SaŽns had intended also to compose sonatas for flute and for cor anglais but he died before he was able to complete the project. In each sonata the piano is skilfully integrated with the wind instrument. The distinctive timbre and versatility of each instrument are expertly displayed. The spare, evocative, classical lines, haunting melodies, and superb formal structures underline these beacons of the neoclassical movement. Though the works were not performed during his lifetime, Saint-SaŽns did have the satisfaction of knowing that the sonatas were approved by their dedicatees. Their importance in the woodwind repertoire cannot be exaggerated.

Saint-SaŽnsís chamber works reveal the complete man: his sense of tradition coupled with imagination, his feeling for colour, his sense of humour, his desire for balance and symmetry, his love of clarity. His greatest contribution to music was perpetuating traditional French values during an era of little enthusiasm for instrumental works and strong foreign influence in France. His expert craftsmanship, his spirited approach, and his Gallic interpretation of Romantic genres provided the new French school of music with both foundation and inspiration. Saint-SaŽns himself admitted that he was an eclectic spirit. Although he did draw heavily on earlier periods and on composers from other nations, he nevertheless experimented with the new. His prime concern was the refinement and definition of form and symmetry; his goal, the creation and survival of French instrumental music.

Sabina Teller Ratner © 2005

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