As discussed in an interview with Steven Isserlis and Jeremy Nicholas on an underrated composer, we find that Saint-Saens was indeed a brilliant composer, conductor, pianist, play write, poet and lecturer.
He gave his concert debut at the age of ten and when asked to give an encore Saint-Saens announced to the audience that he could play all of the Beethoven sonatas by memory and would be pleased to perform any one of their choosing! His compositional output was not prolific considering the long life he had, unlike Schubert. Perhaps it was due to the fact that Saint-Saens was an "experimenter." He also had no "real" style that could be pinpointed as a result, yet his compositions for the cello were extremely difficult and purely lyrical.
He was a brilliant pianist, performing his "Marche Militaire Francaise" composed in 1904 in concert in his eighties with a virtuosic technique, crystalline fast notes and admirable accuracy. In his orchestration of a cello suite for cello and piano, done at the end of his career, Op.16, he added an extra Tarantella movement showing off the silly side of his character. At his eighty-third birthday party many people attended to just make this misunderstood, great human being feel ignored and slighted. Artur Rubenstein met Saint-Saens, and described him as fat man that looked like a french bank official, nervous speech with a large hooked nose and spoke with a lisp.
Very much like Beethoven and Brahms, people either liked them or hated them. Yet underneath both men was a compassionate, loving individual. Saint-Saens loved Faure, and would do anything he could for him. In return Faure treated him like a son. Saint-Saens had a tragic life and a marriage that fell apart after his two very young son's died only six weeks apart. His uncontrolled grief was to cause him to blame the deaths on his wife causing her to leave Saint-Saens. Strangely enough, his grief was to show up in a Requiem Mass composed just eight days before the death of his first child.
The Cello Sonata No.2, is lesser known and difficult to grasp at first, unlike the first sonata, yet when finally inside the work it conveys its deeply felt pure lyricism, passion, intense depth of mood and seamless phrases, very much like the magnificent "Berceuse" in B flat, composed for violin and piano. (Look for performance by Pascal Devoyon and Philippe Graffin). This is a work that should be a staple of every cellist's repertoire.
The second Cello Concerto is a masterpiece and the performance given by Steven Isserlis and Christoph Eschenbach with the NDR Sinfonieorchester is stellar. The slow movement is conveyed like a gem to behold. It is deeply felt, monstrously difficult, purely lyrical and looks like a piano part. It offers a perfect balance of melodic lines that are lovingly cherished. The other striking aspect about this performance is the expansive range of colour, not only from the soloists but also from the Orchestra who play their hearts out.
"La Muse et le Poete" Op.132, adds a poetic dialogue to the cello played on the violin by the cherished and impressive Joshua Bell. Adding Eschenbach and the NDR Orchestra to the performance conveys the full vitality, inflections, the more agitated passages within the piece, and makes their finale a culmination of unanimity in their shared passages.
"Romance" Op.67, is a piece to be relished with passages that convey musical interplay between the cello and horn section. Its themes are beautifully resourceful and harmonically adventurous, which show an awareness of the musical establishment of the period.
As one would expect, the overall performances are all superior due to the exceptional calibre of the artists. The comprehensive approach and musical "purity" reveal a solidly established personality allied to good taste, forthright, powerful and formidable virtuosity.
Author: Raymond Vacchino M.Mus. Classical Music Critic