This recital comprises, they tell me, the complete oeuvre of Saint-Saens for cello and orchestra. It contains even more, in the shape of a `priere' for cello with organ, and in the symphonic poem La Muse et le Poete the cello soloist Steven Isserlis is partnered tastefully by Joshua Bell on his violin.
Good taste is the hallmark of everything here, from the composer, from the soloists, from the orchestra and from Francis Grier on the organ. Nothing is de trop, and the recorded sound (various dates in the 90's) is beautiful in quality and seemingly in total sympathy with the music entrusted to it. Vigour is certainly called for sometimes, notably in the second concerto, but such an artist as Isserlis can despatch the technical demands with effortless power and without compromising his sangfroid and poise. Right at the start I thought that the solo was rather forward, in much the way we were used to for decades, but this impression does not persist and I am prepared to be contradicted about it (not that I ever minded that kind of concerto balance anyway). The second movement of the first work is written by the composer in a way that relegates the orchestra to a quiet background role, so the cello ought to be prominent there in any case, and my initial impression does not come back to me anywhere later in the recital.
There is a liner note by Michael Steinberg that is perfectly adequate as long as it sticks with the music, that is to say right up to the short last paragraph, which Steinberg inflicts on the soloist. Not only does he use the ghastly expression `classy', he finishes by telling us that Isserlis has `the most individual voice among cellists today', adding triumphantly `What more could one want?' Seeing he asks, I'd say that less of this ill-judged peroration would have been more.
Saint-Saens' famous first cello concerto has long been a favourite of mine: from a melodic point of view it is insistently memorable and it is, I think, one of the most successful examples of his distinctive ability to meld Classical concision of expression with Romantic sensibility. Given how much I admire it, I'm really not sure why it has taken me so long to investigate his second concerto, in D minor, but this outstanding disc - both in terms of artistic merit and value for money - has proved to be a more than worthy introduction to it; indeed, it also introduced me to several other works with concertante roles for the cello - the elegant and charming Suite for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 16 and the lushly scored, often impassioned tone poem 'La Muse et Le Poete', Op. 132 (in the latter the cello sharing the solo spotlight with the violin, played eloquently here by Joshua Bell), plus as a bonus the attractive 'Prayer' for cello and organ.
Throughout the disc the performances, which I presume have been gathered from different sources to form this budget price collection of all the composer's works for cello and orchestra, are consistently excellent. Michael Tilson Thomas with the LSO brings together the two aforementioned aspects of Saint-Saens' musical personality adroitly - the outer movements of the first concerto are as dramatic and passionate as one could wish but the ensemble remains crisp and rhythmically precise, while the muted strings in the central "menuet" are the very model of pointed elegance. Although it has a broadly similar three-in-one structure, with material from the opening movement returning in the final section, I think the actual idiom of the second concerto is more overtly Romantic and that is matched by the warmth of the NDR Sinfonieorchester under Christoph Eschenbach's baton: if the cello part here is more demanding than that of the first concerto, you wouldn't know it from Stephen Isserlis' sterling performance - indeed, in both concertos he dispatches the most fiendishly taxing passages seemingly effortlessly and invests the declamatory writing with power and drama. He doesn't lack tenderness either, as the 'Andante sostenuto' of the second concerto displays and 'La Muse et le Poete' also, where he and Joshua Bell duet beautifully against the background of some of Saint-Saens' most attractive orchestral writing; the only reason I can think for this lovely work not being more widely performed is that it calls for two instrumental soloists of considerable calibre - otherwise I feel certain it would be programmed as often as any other of his purely orchestral pieces. The much earlier Suite for Cello and Orchestra is perhaps not quite as striking a discovery but it is charming and witty by turns, very engaging listening from beginning to end, and receives performances from Isserlis and the NDR Sinfonieorchester as fine as those in the concertos.
The sound quality here is also excellent, with no appreciable (or jarring) difference between pieces recorded at different venues and times. If there were one minor criticism it is perhaps that the liner essay, though well written, is rather short and does not go into any significant detail regarding the works presented here, a consequence no doubt of this being a bargain priced reissue. That minor niggle aside, I can only agree with my fellow reviewers: this is a highly recommendable release that has brought me a great deal of pleasure - and given the price of RCA's Classic Library Series releases, it really is a steal.
Lush romantic works played with technical bravura and at times with hushed meditative qualities. La Muse et le Poète inspired by Alfred de Musset's poem La Nuit de Mai, moves through contrasting episodes with superb violin playing by Joshua Bell who represents the muse and Iserlis on the cello representing the poet. One of my favourite recordings which I bring with me often when I go on holiday. Highly recommended.
Such wonderful music and such glorious playing! The highlights for me are the sweet and succinct (and I suspect very difficult to play) 2nd Cello Concerto and the beautiful tone poem for violin, cello and orchestra La Muse et le Poete from 1909.
There are four significant works by Saint-Saens included here - Suite for Cello and Orchestra Op. 16, Cello Concerto No 1 Op. 33, Cello Concerto No 2. Op. 119, and La Muse et le Poete, Op. 132. The suite was written when Saint-Saens was about twenty six. It pays tribute to what he had learned of the baroque suite as a model but is filled with 19th century content. His Suite is in 5 movements including Prelude, Serenade, Gavotte, Romance and Tarantelle. Steven Isserlis and NDR Sinfonieorchester with Christoph Eschenbach conducting, play this delightfully. The First Cello Concerto is a 'top ten cello concertos' favourite for many people. The orchestra is the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. In this account, the Menuet movement, with its muted strings, is particularly enjoyable. Then, with the 2nd Concerto I was completely blown away. I did not know it. The performance on this CD makes me want to find a concert hall somewhere in the world where this is being played. It is ravishing - and beautifully designed and performed. It deserves to be better known. It is a wonderful piece for a great virtuoso. The fourth item is, what amounts to, a single movement double concerto for violin and cello. Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis and Christoph Eschenbach and the NDR Sinfonieorchester seem to completely understand each other in presenting a tender and passionate work. Glorious! As a bonus,for the final track on this CD there is the Prayer Op 158 of Saint-Saens, in his eighties. It is for cello and organ(played by Francis Grier) in the fine reverberant acoustic of the Chapel of Eton College, Windsor - an appropriately meditative close to a fine collection of recordings.