The outstanding English cellist Steven Isserlis released two BMG collections of cello music by Camille Saint-Saens in the mid-90s, one devoted to his music written mostly after 1900 and this one, with one exception, consisting of music from the 1870s and 80s. Both discs are very fine. If I had to highlight one work from the set as a "must hear", it is the 1910 "The Muse and the Poet" for violin, cello and orchestra, a little-known gem included in the second volume. The first volume, under review here, is very good as well and I'd say overall more consistent in quality.
Isserlis leads off with the best-known of Saint-Saens' cello works, the 1st cello concerto (1872), done with the London Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas. This piece can easily become vulgar and overblown but Isserlis and Tilson Thomas take a more subdued approach that I like very much. The concerto's attractive melodies, concise construction and interesting development of themes is foregrounded and make for a very satisfying rendition. The other big work included here is the 1st cello sonata, written simultaneously with the 1st concerto in 1872. The sonata consists of two stormy outer-movements with a Baroque-influenced middle one. Unfamiliar with this work prior to buying this recording, I have very much enjoyed getting to know it. Isserlis is joined by a regular partner, the terrific French pianist Pascal Devoyon, for a very strong performance. It's interesting to note that the middle movements of both of these works are "neoclassical" (they borrow stylistically from the 18th century) and the disc also contains a highly attractive Gavotte for cello and piano, likewise neoclassical. The disc has a bonbon third track, "The Swan" from the "Carnival of the Animals" done with Dudley Moore, famous actor and accomplished pianist, whom I still remember for his maudlin but affecting piano solo in "Ten." The rest of the disc contains shorter works, including a pretty Romance (Op. 36, track 6). One of Isserlis' side ventures is rediscovering the lost repertory for cello and organ, and so the disc closes with a reverb-filled recording of a late composition, the "Prayer" (1919) for these two instruments, which I liked.
Isserlis is simply a wonderful performer and he propels the disc with his awesome tone and inspired musicianship. Sonics are very good. I think you will very much enjoy this outstanding release.