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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent performances of Saint-Saens' string quartets and violin sonatas, 24 April 2013
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This review is from: Saint-Saens: String Quartets 1, 2 & Violin pieces (Audio CD)
Saint-Saens came to the medium of the string quartet relatively late in his composing career - he was in his sixties when the first one appeared and two decades passed before he essayed the genre for a second time. Like much of his chamber music - actually, considering the breadth of his output, one might almost say like much of his music generally - they have been relatively poorly served by the record labels over the years in favour of the handful of masterpieces that have gained popular currency: happily, however, there are now several recordings of these fine works in the catalogue and some, like this one, at very reasonable prices.

No-one can accuse the composer of approaching the quartet form lightly: the E minor work is one of striking seriousness throughout, even severity at times, though not without emotional warmth - the 'Molto adagio' third movement, sensitively realised by the Viotti Quartet here, offers an oasis of consolation and calm amidst its surroundings and, despite the agitated tone that develops in the opening 'Allegro' after its memorable and muted beginning, the cello in particular provides some respite from the urgency of the movement as a whole. 'Agitato', though not found in the movement titles, is a moniker that could be appended to any of the descriptions Saint-Saens provided for the other three movements and even the scherzo has a driven quality to it, emphasising the elevated tone he was striving for (and achieved). His mastery of contrapuntal technique is to the fore again in the dramatic finale, which ends emphatically and abruptly, underlining one final time the sense of disquiet that has so marked this work. The contrast between the 1899 first quartet and the second of 1918 could hardly be more pronounced: though equally beautifully crafted, of course, this late G major piece eschews the virtuoso writing of its predecessor and replaces it with a Classical sense of poise (the thematic allusion to Mozart in the opening movement surely a nod to the era the composer was saluting with this music); emotionally too, the turmoil of the earlier work is succeeded here by an equanimity of expression, though one not without a seriousness of its own and even, in the central 'Molto adagio', a certain restrained melancholy. The beautifully balanced 'Allegro animato' that opens the work is notable for the harmonic sophistication of Saint-Saens' writing, displaying that perhaps he wasn't entirely the arch-conservative he represented himself as to the musical world of his old age, and the finale is one of charm and wit, proving (like his equally late sonatas for wind instruments) that his technical expertise and craft remained balanced with artistic imagination.

The Viotti Quartet make an excellent case for both these quartets, sharp in attack and with a keen sense of the distinctive character each quartet displays but they also bring warmth and sensitivity to the lyrical passages in both pieces and never lose sight of the overall architecture of Saint-Saens' classically structured movements. There is an equally rewarding and more recent performance of the two quartets by the Fine Arts Quartet to be found on Naxos, recorded in very good sound quality and well-received by a fellow Amazon reviewer. To be honest, there is not much between the two recordings to my ears and whichever you were to choose would make for an excellent introduction to these unduly neglected quartets - however, where this Apex release does score over its rival is the inclusion of several other significant works for violin and piano on a second disc, and for much the same price.

The cover title for this release is a little misleading, I have to say, suggesting that there are couple of tracks added to the recording of the quartets as a bonus: in fact this is a two disc set and the other disc features fine performances of Saint-Saens two violin sonatas and a selection of shorter pieces for violin and piano from across his career. Curiously, the two sonatas echo the dichotomy between the two quartets - the first is a work of stirring Romantic ardour in D minor, the second - in E flat major - more restrained in its emotional compass, though as sophisticated in technique as one would expect. The D minor sonata is notable for the division of the four movements according to the plan of his Third Symphony: although all four are recognisable as distinct movements, the only break in the music occurs between the second and third movements so that the opening and final pair form part of a two-in-one structure. The performances - Olivier Charlier on violin, Jean Hubeau at the piano - are vital and sympathetic: their reading of the D minor sonata really is a tour-de-force, technically and emotionally, capturing the passion of the surging 'Allegro agitato' and the songful 'Adagio' as much as they do the fiery energy in the later movements. The four shorter pieces for violin and piano are dispatched with similar panache and make an extremely rewarding set of bonus tracks.

The recordings date from the 1980s but the sound quality is very good throughout and very well balanced. As I say, if the quartets are your prime reason for considering this release, you won't go wrong with either the more recent Naxos disc or this one - given the fact that this is a double CD set, however, containing two hours of music for much the same price as the single Naxos disc, I am inclined to say that this would be my first choice. Warmly recommended.
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