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Hyperion Records

CDA68002 - Saint-Saëns: Cello Concertos

Recording details: June 2013
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Simon Kiln
Engineered by Arne Akselberg
Release date: September 2014
DISCID: 6C0E0308
Total duration: 59 minutes 48 seconds

'This is as close as you'll ever get to musical champagne; I've a feeling Saint-Saëns would have approved … Saint-Saëns's Second Concerto is fiendishly difficult, with much of its virtuosity reserved for the soloist's long accompanying episodes. The composer himself confessed it was 'too difficult' to achieve popularity. Yet Clein has the measure of it, delivering the dizzying double-stops with airborne grace and tight precision … she revels in the spacious cadenza of its curious, short fast movement, combining limpid vocalise with insouciant runs' (BBC Music Magazine) » More

'This is a first-class recording, the fifth in Hyperion's series of Romantic cello concertos. Anybody wanting both Saint-Saëns's Cello Concertos and La muse et le poète really doesn't need to look any further. Natalie Clein is a comprehensively gifted player who performs these pieces with an ideal combination of warm-hearted expressiveness and astonishing technical agility. She also demonstrates a rare understanding of how the solo instrument is often woven into Saint-Saëns's beautifully written orchestral textures. And here, again, this release scores very highly. Andrew Manze and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are the most imaginative and sensitive partners' (International Record Review) » More

'A new recording by Natalie Clein is always an event … and this one finds her on top form … this is exciting stuff with a real sense of happening … Concerto No 2 draws a muscular response from both orchestra and soloist. The beauty and freedom of Clein’s playing in the first movement’s three solo episodes and in the poignant Andante sostenuto is matched by her technical confidence and strong tone' (The Strad)

The Romantic Cello Concerto
Cello Concertos

Natalie Clein adds a remarkable collection of Saint-Saëns’ music for cello and orchestra to her impressive discography. Clein first came to prominence when she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year award in 1994; it is appropriate that she performs the music of an extraordinary child prodigy.

The first cello concerto has always been one of Saint-Saëns’ most popular pieces, Casals choosing it for his London debut in 1905. It is a gloriously playful piece that carries the listener along on a melodic and emotional rollercoaster, from the jaunty opening to the eloquence of the second movement minuet, with a persistent yearning threading its way throughout. The second concerto will be less familiar to listeners. The soloist for whom it was written, Joseph Hollman, was an energetic, muscular player and Saint-Saëns seems here to turn his back on the suave style of the first concerto. When Saint-Saëns’ pupil and friend Gabriel Fauré chose the concerto as a Conservatoire test piece, the composer was duly grateful, but admitted ‘it will never be as well known as the first; it’s too difficult’. This it certainly is, with many solo passages, huge leaps and runs that require two staves to accommodate them, and a large amount of doublestopping. Natalie Clein meets these challenges with marvellous technique, musicianship and the passion for which she has become so well known.

Other recommended albums
'Pfitzner: Cello Concertos' (CDA67906)
Pfitzner: Cello Concertos
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'Młynarski & Zarzycki: Violin Concertos' (CDA67990)
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'Schumann: Kinderszenen & Waldszenen; Janáček: On the overgrown path I' (CDA68030)
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The long-held notion of Saint-Saëns as a rather stuffy, academic old soul has, mercifully, begun to fade. The relative conservatism of his musical language can now be heard as the counterweight to a continually enquiring mind in many other areas, such as orchestral colour, exoticism and form. It is worth mentioning that while cello concertos had existed in the eighteenth century, by composers such as Vivaldi, C P E Bach, Haydn and Boccherini, in the nineteenth Schumann had been the only notable composer to embrace the genre; Saint-Saëns’s first concerto of 1872 was the earliest known one for cello by a major French composer.

Another misplaced idea has been that Saint-Saëns pursued music as an intellectual activity divorced from real life. To some extent, he himself was responsible for this view, always ready as he was to champion the cause of art for art’s sake, especially when faced with the French Wagner mania of the 1880s and beyond. But any reader of his articles and letters will know the warm human heart that beat in that short, rotund figure, often mistaken for Edward VII.

Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No 1 in A minor, Op 33, was informed, certainly, by one friendship and possibly by another. As a student, he had been taught piano accompaniment by Auguste Franchomme, the cellist to whom Chopin had dedicated his cello sonata and who developed a particular light bowing technique usually described as ‘French’. Another possible influence on the work was the death in January 1872 of his beloved great-aunt Charlotte at the age of ninety-one, after which he cancelled all engagements for a month. It is arguable that the tone of the work combines a lightness of touch with deep expressiveness, not least in what one biographer has called the ‘haunting otherworldliness’ of its melodies.

Yet a third factor in the work might well have been the incipient recovery of Paris after the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune. In February 1871 the new Société Nationale de Musique, with Saint-Saëns as one of its founder members, had promoted its first concert under the banner ‘Ars gallica’, and the impetus was thereby given to young French composers to outdo the Germans in every way possible. It was partly pressure from the Société that pushed the staid Concerts du Conservatoire into accepting the premiere of Saint-Saëns’s first concerto on 19 January 1873, but more the request from the established cellist Auguste Tolbecque—without which, the conductor kindly informed the composer, the work would not have had a hope.

The first cello concerto has always been one of Saint-Saëns’s most popular pieces, Casals choosing it for his London debut in 1905. Tunes abound, but not in any disorderly way: the main themes of the outer movements move upwards, the second themes downwards; if, that is, the opening cello motif can be called a ‘theme’—the composer’s biographer Brian Rees refers to it as ‘an artefact rather than a melodious outburst’. The central minuet is a movement of pure delight and, in those uncertain times, no doubt reassured Parisian audiences that French culture had after all survived, one critic remarking that here the composer was making up for a recent ‘divergence from classicism’. The return of earlier material in the third movement may owe something to Saint-Saëns’s study of the cyclic patterns found in Liszt, to whom he remained indebted all his life.

Before the founding of the Société Nationale, one of the mainstays of the Paris concert scene was Jules Pasdeloup’s Concerts populaires, intended to bring good music to audiences at affordable prices. It was to the principal cellist of this organization, Jules Lasserre, that Saint-Saëns dedicated his Allegro appassionato, Op 43, written for cello and piano in 1873 and orchestrated in 1876. It is an uncomplicated piece in scherzo form, with a main tune that has a gypsy feel to it revealing, in one writer’s words, the ‘dark edges that haunt so many of his melodies’.

Early in 1886, the fifty-year-old Saint-Saëns went to Austria on holiday and, as relaxation from his simultaneous work on his third symphony, embarked on a brief cello solo for the well-known performer Charles-Joseph Lebouc, who was about to retire. One thing led to another, and in a matter of days Le cygne had turned into a ‘grande fantaisie zoologique’ (though it has to be said that he had had this project vaguely in mind for some twenty years). Although Le cygne was duly published, the composer resolutely set his face against the other thirteen pieces being played during his lifetime outside a small circle of friends, and Le carnaval des animaux as a whole was not published until 1922, the year after his death. The reason was he was nervous about how such a work would be received in Germany, where he appeared regularly as a pianist. As mentioned above, the intention of the Société Nationale was to appear professional and serious, so jokes were out. In 1886 Saint-Saëns was also in a particularly delicate situation, since he had in the previous year published a series of articles on Wagner in which he resisted the notion that, ‘until he arrived, Drama and Music were in their childhood and paved the way for his appearance’, a wholly reasonable resistance that had brought all Valhalla crashing round his head. Le carnaval therefore led a quiet private life for over thirty years, brought out on the salon circuit for those who might appreciate it, such as Liszt on his last visit to Paris a few months before his death. The choreographer Mikhail Fokine, who used Le cygne for Pavlova’s famous dance ‘The Dying Swan’, learnt it on the mandolin. The ballerina’s dying words were ‘Prepare my Swan costume!’

The most high-profile Parisian musical event of 1902 was undoubtedly Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, though it was not to the taste of Saint-Saëns who told a friend he was staying in Paris over the summer in order to say nasty things about it. But this was also the year Saint-Saëns wrote his Cello Concerto No 2 in D minor, Op 119, which gives the lie to any idea that he was resting on his laurels. The soloist for whom it was written, Joseph Hollman, was an energetic, muscular player and Saint-Saëns seems here to turn his back on the suave style of the first concerto and of Le cygne (we can find a similar volte-face decades later from Henri Dutilleux, between the predominantly lyrical cello of Tout un monde lointain and the more strident one of Trois strophes sur le nom de SACHER). When, in 1917, Saint-Saëns’s pupil and friend Gabriel Fauré chose the concerto as a Conservatoire test piece, the composer was duly grateful, but admitted ‘it will never be as well known as the first; it’s too difficult’.

This it certainly is, with many solo passages, huge leaps and runs that require two staves to accommodate them, and a large amount of double-stopping. The French premiere of the piece at a Conservatoire concert on 5 February 1905 was the occasion for one critic to come up with the formula ‘bad music well written’ that was to dog the composer’s work for years. The critic Jean Chantavoine even thought he detected a note of satire in the work, and was unimpressed by Hollman’s disordered hair, tempestuous shoulders, furious brow and athletic double-stopping. With the wisdom of hindsight we can see that it is quite simply hard for any soloist to manage this concerto without expending a good deal of physical effort. At the same time, there are also passages of the most exquisite lyricism, notably in the Andante sostenuto that forms the second part of the first movement, where we can only admire the composer’s delicate use of wind instruments, not to deliver solos, but to add discreet colour to a line or a chord. Who else (Ravel perhaps) could have written the miraculous ending of this Andante, using just ascending scales and descending fourths? Wildness sets in with the second movement, not just in rhythm and figuration but in harmony too. The cadenza embraces the traditional recitative that Pelléas was busy destroying and in the process stretches the instrument to its upper limits, before the brief final section returns to a style we can recognize as typical of late nineteenth-century France.

Saint-Saëns’s final work involving the cello was La muse et le poète, Op 132, in which that instrument is joined by a violin to form what he referred to as a conversation between the two instruments instead of a debate between two virtuosos. The background to the work’s composition has its bizarre side. A statue of the composer had been exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1907. A female admirer, Mme Caruette, wanted to present it to the town of Dieppe, but strictly a law forbade the erection of statues to the living. However, political intervention solved that problem and the statue duly found a place in the town’s theatre, allowing Saint-Saëns to make one of his tart sallies, to the effect that since he must be dead to have a statue of himself put up, he wouldn’t need to make a speech. When the good Mme Caruette rejoined her ancestors in 1909, he wrote a one-movement piano trio in her memory which his publisher, Jacques Durand, insisted on giving the title it now bears, much to his fury. He then orchestrated it and the work was premiered in London in 1910 by Ysaÿe and Hollman. A critic of the Parisian premiere found in it tenderness, sombreness and pain as well as an inner drama. Beyond these qualities, listeners need not make an effort to discern a form for the piece: its improvisational structure was deliberate, as a hit against the Germans whose insistence on formal rigour was, he felt, destroying music’s soul. A stuffy academic? Here he was truly speaking the language of the twentieth century, in which form would increasingly be decided by content.

Roger Nichols © 2014

Other albums in this series
'The Romantic Cello Concerto, Vol. 1 – Dohnányi, Enescu & Albert' (CDA67544)
The Romantic Cello Concerto, Vol. 1 – Dohnányi, Enescu & Albert
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67544  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'The Romantic Cello Concerto, Vol. 2 – Volkmann, Dietrich, Gernsheim & Schumann' (CDA67583)
The Romantic Cello Concerto, Vol. 2 – Volkmann, Dietrich, Gernsheim & Schumann
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67583 
'The Romantic Cello Concerto, Vol. 3 – Stanford' (CDA67859)
The Romantic Cello Concerto, Vol. 3 – Stanford
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67859 
'The Romantic Cello Concerto, Vol. 4 – Pfitzner' (CDA67906)
The Romantic Cello Concerto, Vol. 4 – Pfitzner
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67906  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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