Wednesday 17 November 2021

From youthful jeux d'esprit to late, late masterworks: Saint-Saens' chamber music with winds is well-worth exploring

Camille Saint-Saens Complete music for piano and winds; Les solistes de l'orchestre de Paris, Pascal Godart, Laurent Wagschal; IndeSens

Camille Saint-Saens Complete music for piano and winds; Les solistes de l'orchestre de Paris, Pascal Godart, Laurent Wagschal; IndeSens

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 November 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Despite being firmly rooted in classicism, this disc shows Saint-Saens willing to experiment leading to the remarkable late, late wind sonatas

Camille Saint-Saens was so fertile and prolific as a composer (169 opus numbers and many works without opus number) that it can be difficult to focus on his music. Yes, there are that half-dozen or so key works which crop up regularly, but what about all the rest. This new disc from IndeSens sheds light on Camille Saint-Saens by narrowing its focus and exploring his complete chamber music with winds, performed by Les Solistes de l'Orchestre de Paris with pianists Pascal Godart, Laurent Wagschal and Pascal Gallet. Now, the focus of the disc might at first seem somewhat narrow and unrewarding, but in fact the disc begins with Saint-Saens Septet, op.65 from 1880 and ends with his remarkable group of woodwind sonatas from the 1920s.

Whilst in his youth Saint-Saens was a notable supporter of the new music of Schumann, Liszt and Wagner, his own compositions tended to be somewhat more conservative and based on classical forms. This would lead to a sort of ossification in his attitudes so that by the 20th century, and particularly during the First World War, he was something of an outspoken curmudgeon, few of the 20th century 'isms' appealed to him, neither Debussy nor Schoenberg. 

Yet, and yet, and yet.

There is a willingness to explore the unusual in his music. The so-called Organ Symphony is notable for featuring a major role not only for organ but for piano duet, and of course the Carnival of the Animals shows that not only has he a sense of humour but can write imaginatively for a relatively small an unusual grouping of instruments. On this disc his Septet is deservedly well-known because not only is it a rattling good work but it is a rare example of the trumpet being brought in from the cold. Then the second disc in this set is entirely devoted to woodwind sonatas from his late, late period (he was 85!), and you wonder whether Debussy's similar project from 1918 might have been an influence, even if Saint-Saens found that composer's music formless.

The second disc in this set is devoted almost entirely to these late sonatas and a couple of other related works. So here we have the Sonata for clarinet (Philippe Berrod & Pascal Godar), the Priere, originally for cello and here played on bassoon (Marc Trenel & Laurent Wagschal), the Sonata for Oboe (Alexandre Gattet & Pascal Godart), Odelette in the composer's transcription for flute and piano (Vincent Lucas & Laurent Wagschal), the Sonata for Bassoon (Marc Trenel & Pascal Godart), plus a fantasy for cornet and piano and a version of  'The Swan' from Le Carnival des Animaux for bugle and piano, though no information is given in the booklet about these latter two.

For the woodwind pieces, Saint-Saens' classicism and wit seem to come back into focus in musical world of the 1920s, and the music is occasionally not that far from Les Six and the move towards neo-classicism and melody. This music is somewhat timeless, and listening to it you cannot always be sure of the exact time-period it was written. Like his friend and teacher, Faure (similarly long-lived), Saint-Saens seems to have remained himself in old age yet simplified and refined things. Also, perhaps the curmudgeon was still not averse to listening to what was around him; reputedly he was the only French musician to travel to Munich in 1910 for the premiere of Mahler's Symphony No. 8.

The clarinet sonata begins in classical, melodic style, clearly late-romantic but there is something else too, and the second movement is a perky delight. The slow movement is dark, intense and chromatic, with an engaging finale which is very much in the 1920s neo-classical style. I am unclear whether this is Saint-Saens responding to what was around him, or simply being himself and finding himself in fashion again!

The Priere is a serious but intriguing piece, and Trenel's fabulous high, plaintive sound makes a terrific case for this bassoon incarnation. The Oboe Sonata is in just three movements yet seems more inclined to structural imagination. The opening Andantino is classical yet winsome, and certainly the harmonies are not obvious. The middle movement moves between a lyrical cantilena which makes you think of a 1000 different influences, and an attractive middle section which goes with a dancey swing. We end with perky, classical wit which makes you think of Poulenc in the same vein.

Odelette makes a delightful flute showpiece, delicate with dance-like hints yet classical in its poise. With the Bassoon Sonata we enter real unusual territory, the instrument was not famous for its chamber music outings like this (and we rather regret that Saint-Saens never had time to write the planned Cor Anglais Sonata!). The opening movement features a lovely singing bassoon line over some intriguing harmonic colours in the flowing piano, whilst the scherzo has pure devilish dash to it (not unsurprising from the composer of Danse Macabre). The slow movement begins with a simple singing bassoon over discreet piano, but develops into something more complex and the finale is short, robust and delightfully perky.

The two extra items feature superb cornet and bugle playing from Eric Aubier (accompanied by Pascal Gallet), showing Saint-Saens at his imaginative best when writing for an unusual instrument.

A similar instrument, the trumpet this time, is the central feature of the Septet which opens disc one. Here Saint-Saens was writing to order in 1880 for the Trumpet Society. So we have a work for trumpet, string quartet, double bass and piano. And it works. Saint-Saens effortlessly incorporates the trumpet into the texture without ever making it seem a mini-concerto. But there is another intriguing element, the movement titles are Preambule, Menuet, Intermede, Gavotte & Final, so as well as looking forward Saint-Saens is looking back and this immediately makes us think of such works as Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin

It begins with a wonderful dash, though we hear how Saint-Saens achieves his balance by pitting the string and piano ensemble against the trumpet, yet there are subtleties too. The minuet has a robustness to it, a four-square quality which suggests something country-dance like, though with thoughtful moments. The Intermede sees the composer in more serious vein, there are Schumann-esque hints here, whilst the finale finishes things in a perkier mood. I will be quite frank, I would love to hear a period-instrument version of this, as I am fascinated by what timbres Saint-Saens was using here, but this performance fulfils all the requirements of modern instruments.

The other works on the first disc are often more occasional in nature. There are delightful versions of 'The Swan' and 'The Elephant' from Les Carnaval des Animaux transcribed for contrabassoon and a transcription of Dalila's famous aria from Samson et Dalila for bassoon! The Tarantella for flute, clarinet and piano is relatively early (1857) and salon-ish in its approach. The Caprice sur des air danois et russes for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano dates from 1887 and was written for friends, and is a tribute to the Russian Empress who was born a princess of Denmark. It is Saint-Saens in memorable musical vein, crowd-pleasing but substantial.

But there are interesting little gems too, and a willingness to experiment. So we have the Romance for French Horn & Piano, lyrically memorable and also, evidently, technically demanding. In a similar vein (and from the same year, 1874) is the Romance for flute and piano. There is also a second Romance for French horn and piano, this from 1886, which displays a willingness to treat the instrument as a serious chamber soloist without any sense of compromise.  

The Cavatine for trombone and piano really belongs on the second disc, here in 1915 Saint-Saens is exploring an instrument whose chamber possibilities had not been much explored and whose technical side was still evolving. 

The performances on this disc are uniformly admirable and wonderfully engaging. All the wind plays deftly navigate the various technical challenges that Saint-Saens presents them with, and the performances range from great enjoyment of the more salon-ish pieces to the combination of seriousness, wit and neoclassicism in the late works. Highly recommended.

Septuor - Septet, Op. 65 for Trumpet, Strings & Piano
Romance for French Horn & Piano op.36
Tarentelle pour clarinette, flûte et piano op. 6
Le carnaval des animaux - Le cygne / the swan
Le carnaval des animaux - Eléphant
Romance, Op. 37 for Flute & Piano
Cavatine, Op. 144 Trombone & Piano
Romance, Op. 67 French Horn & Piano
Caprice sur des airs danois et russes, Op. 79
Samson et Dalila (Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix)
Clarinet Sonata, Op. 167
Prière / Prayer, Op. 158
Oboe Sonata, Op. 166
Odelette pour flute & piano, Op. 162
Bassoon Sonata, Op. 168
Fantaisie pour conret a pistons et piano
Le carnaval des animaux - Le cygne / the swan
Vincent Lucas (flute)
Alexandre Gattet (oboe)
Olivier Derbesse (clarinet)
Philippe Berrod (clarinet)
Andre Cazlet (French horn)
Guillaume Cottet-Dumoulin (trombone)
Marc Trenel (bassoon)
Yves d'Hau (contra-bassoon)
Eiichi Chijiiwa, Angelique Loyer (violin)
Ana Bela Chabes (viola)
Ammeanual Gaugae (cello)
Bernard Cazuran (double bass)
Laurent Wagschal (piano)
Pascal Godart (piano)
Pascal Gallet (piano)
IndeSens INDE149 2CDs [63.35, 58.04]
Recorded at the Temple Saint-Marcel, Paris

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