I'd give it 6 stars if I could
Michael Suh | 09/21/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"It's rare that I come across CDs that make me change the way I feel about a particular composer or his (yes, most composers are male) works. This is one of those cases.
Saint-Saens's music tends to be dismissed as fluff pieces that are big on melody, but not much content. If you've listened to Stephen Hough's recording of the piano concertos on Hyperion, you'll know what I mean -- he makes it sounds like breezy salon music. The Vox recordings of the Violin and Cello Concertos turned me off to huge chunks of Saint-Saens for about 10 years.
These recordings changed everything.
Sure, the first two violin concertos will never be widely performed. But the opening chords of the first disc with the first violin concerto sure make a strong argument as to why the lesser known works should be revisited. There's a bit of a screech on one of the opening chords -- why wouldn't they record that again? -- but it's the intensity and passion that shines through. It's not the world's best violin concerto, but it's a fun short listen (it's only 11 minutes) and interesting because Saint-Saens uses the same structural model much more successfully a few years later in his first Cello Concerto. I don't really see the appeal to the second Violin concerto... it's just a dull work from Saint-Saens's youth right before meeting Sarasate (despite being his Op. 58, the second concerto was written a year before his first when he was only 23). The third concerto is the "popular" one, and the performance here is just great from beginning to end.
The shorter works are unexpected gems. The famous Introduction and Rondo capriccioso is amazing -- it really shows why audiences and violinists love it. But the real surprise here is the Morceau, which has a pretty simple and charming theme that gets transformed into some very impressive finger-work for the violinist. The two romances are beautiful, similar to Beethoven's. They're easy listening and pleasant, but not earth-shattering works.
The Spanish works are good -- the Havanaise is near perfect and the Caprice andalou, while not one of my favorite works, is as good as one can ever hope to hear it.
La Muse et le poete (also with a cello soloist) just kind of goes over my head, even though it has plenty of virtuosity and melody in it. The Prelude to "Deluge" is a pretty but ordinary work... I guess that's why it's relegated to the last track on the second CD.
Saint-Saens viewed his concertante works as vehicles for virtuosity, but the performances here show that care and musicianship went into them. It is unfortunate that Saint-Saens gets labelled as the frivolous French parlor music and Carnival of the Animals composer. These CDs show he deserves better. I highly recommend them."