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
Schumann: Kinderszenen & Waldszenen; Janáček: On the overgrown path I
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA68030
Gounod: The complete works for pedal piano & orchestra
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67975
The long-held notion of Saint-SaŽns 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-SaŽnsís first concerto of 1872 was the earliest known one for cello by a major French composer.
Another misplaced idea has been that Saint-SaŽns 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 artís 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-SaŽnsís 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 ĎFrenchí. 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 Ďhaunting otherworldlinessí 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 Sociťtť Nationale de Musique, with Saint-SaŽns as one of its founder members, had promoted its first concert under the banner ĎArs gallicaí, and the impetus was thereby given to young French composers to outdo the Germans in every way possible. It was partly pressure from the Sociťtť that pushed the staid Concerts du Conservatoire into accepting the premiere of Saint-SaŽnsís first concerto on 19 January 1873, but more the request from the established cellist Auguste Tolbecqueówithout 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-SaŽnsís 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 Ďthemeíóthe composerís biographer Brian Rees refers to it as Ďan artefact rather than a melodious outburstí. 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 Ďdivergence from classicismí. The return of earlier material in the third movement may owe something to Saint-SaŽnsís study of the cyclic patterns found in Liszt, to whom he remained indebted all his life.
Before the founding of the Sociťtť Nationale, one of the mainstays of the Paris concert scene was Jules Pasdeloupís 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-SaŽns 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 writerís words, the Ďdark edges that haunt so many of his melodiesí.
Early in 1886, the fifty-year-old Saint-SaŽns 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 Ďgrande fantaisie zoologiqueí (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 Sociťtť Nationale was to appear professional and serious, so jokes were out. In 1886 Saint-SaŽns 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, Ďuntil he arrived, Drama and Music were in their childhood and paved the way for his appearanceí, 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 Pavlovaís famous dance ĎThe Dying Swaní, learnt it on the mandolin. The ballerinaís dying words were ĎPrepare my Swan costume!í
The most high-profile Parisian musical event of 1902 was undoubtedly Debussyís opera Pellťas et Mťlisande, though it was not to the taste of Saint-SaŽns 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-SaŽns 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-SaŽns 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-SaŽnsís pupil and friend Gabriel Faurť chose the concerto as a Conservatoire test piece, the composer was duly grateful, but admitted Ďit will never be as well known as the first; itís too difficultí.
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 Ďbad music well writtení that was to dog the composerís work for years. The critic Jean Chantavoine even thought he detected a note of satire in the work, and was unimpressed by Hollmanís 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 composerís 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 Pellťas 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-SaŽnsís final work involving the cello was La muse et le poŤte, 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 workís 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 townís theatre, allowing Saint-SaŽns 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 wouldnít 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 Ysaˇe 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 musicís 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
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67544