SAINT-SAENS: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 / Cello Suite (Francois-Joel Thiollier/ Maria Kliegel/ Norbert Ely) (Naxos: 8.557880)
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Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Cello Sonatas • Suite, Op.16
Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, Camille Saint-Saëns showed remarkable precocity as a child, first shown in piano lessons from his great-aunt at the age of two and a half. He coupled with his musical interests a wide general enthusiasm for learning of all kinds, literary and scientific, and was, as a composer, to produce music of many genres during a career that spanned the second half of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, starting in a period that knew Mendelssohn and continuing beyond the death of Debussy.
Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1835, the son of a clerk in the government service, who died shortly after the birth of his only child. He was cared for by his mother and a great-aunt, Charlotte Masson, whose husband had recently died. It was the latter who gave him his first piano lessons. Thereafter he studied with Camille Stamaty, a pupil of Kalkbrenner and of Mendelssohn, and appeared in public concerts as a child, having, by the age of ten, memorised all the Beethoven piano sonatas. At the same time he showed an aptitude for and interest in a great variety of subjects. In 1848 he entered the Conservatoire, studying the organ with Benoist and composition with Halévy, and continuing to show his gifts as a pianist, organist and composer. His intellectual curiosity led him to espouse the cause of contemporary music, as well as the revival of music by earlier composers.
A member of the circle of Pauline Viardot, a valued friend, Saint-Saëns taught briefly at the newly established Ecole Niedermeyer, where his pupils included Gabriel Fauré, a musician with whom he established a close relationship. In 1871, after the disasters of the Franco-Prussian war, he was instrumental in the foundation of the Société Nationale de Musique, with its aim of propagating French music, Ars Gallica. His great-aunt died in 1872 and three years later he contracted a marriage that came to an abrupt end six years later, after the earlier death of his two sons. The death of his mother in 1888 left him alone and he spent much of his later life travelling, accompanied by his dog and a loyal manservant. By the time of his own death in Algeria in 1921 he had to some extent outlived his reputation at home. In France this was the age now of Les Six. Debussy was dead, Fauré was near the end of his life, and Stravinsky had already, some eight years before, scandalized Paris with his Rite of Spring. Saint-Saëns continued to compose, although Ravel unkindly suggested that in war-time he might have been more productively employed. Abroad he retained something more of his earlier fame. Once known as the French Mendelssohn, he had written music that appealed to audiences in much the same way as his predecessor's for its clarity of texture and its attractive powers of invention, calculated to delight rather than to shock.
Saint-Saëns wrote his Cello Sonata No. 1 in C minor, Op. 32, in 1872, a year of continued difficulties in France after the disastrous defeat of Napoleon III at Sedan. The composer's great-aunt Charlotte Masson died in 1872, and the sonata reflects something of his personal sadness at the loss of a relation who had played a major part in his upbringing and musical training, and at the state of his country. Saint-Saëns had served in the National Guard during the siege of Paris, but in the disturbances engineered by the Communards that followed the French surrender and after the loss of other friends he took refuge in England, returning soon to devote his patriotic energies to the new Société Nationale de Musique. The new sonata, written after a time of turbulence and in a period of personal bereavement, makes full use of the lower registers of both cello and piano. It was first heard at a soirée presided over by the composer's mother, whose objections to the finale led Saint-Saëns to destroy the movement and after a few days of sulking to produce the present finale. The first movement of the sonata opens with a strong statement from cello and piano together, before a passage during which one instrument echoes the other. The second subject, in D flat, leads to a closing section where the piano suggests the distant echo of a waltz. After the central development it is the piano that introduces the recapitulation, at first with the plucked notes of the cello. The E flat major slow movement, marked Andante tranquillo sostenuto, opens with a staccato accompanying figure above which a chorale is heard. The cello takes up the accompanying figuration, leaving the chorale to the piano. At the heart of the movement is a passage of stronger feeling, before the return of the chorale, variously treated, emerging from more elaborate piano writing before rapid cello figuration in accompaniment. It has been suggested that the theme is taken from Meyerbeer's opera L'Africaine used as a subject for improvisation by Saint-Saëns when he played for the funeral of his friend the Abbé Duguerry, murdered by the Communards. The demanding piano part of the last movement never overshadows the cello, which largely retains the melodic interest. The piano takes over the second subject in the recapitulation, now in C major, before the closing section in the original key of C minor.
Saint-Saëns wrote his Suite for Cello and Piano, Op. 16, a work he later adapted for cello and orchestra, in 1862. The opening D minor Prélude makes contemporary use of an idiom familiar from Bach's Cello Suites, lightly accompanied by the piano. This is followed by a G minor Sérénade, with a fleeting suggestion of Spain in its melodies and texture. The E flat major Scherzo has the lilt of a waltz, growing in intensity, before proceeding to the equivalent of a calmer trio section. There is a shift to E major for the reflective Romance, which moves forward into music of greater intensity, before the piano brings back the principal theme, after a brief passage of cello recitative. The Finale starts with an imposing introductory section, leading to a fugue, its subject announced by the cello. The movement, a demonstration of the composer's contrapuntal skill, makes use of elements of the introduction, leading eventually to a return of the Bach-derived D minor figuration of the opening movement, capped by a brilliant D major conclusion.
The contributions Saint-Saëns made to cello repertoire were not inconsiderable. In 1872, the year of the first sonata, he had writen his Cello Concerto No. 1, to be followed in 1902 by a second concerto. 1875 had brought his Allegro appassionato for cello and piano, and in 1905 came his Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 123. The year had brought his seventieth birthday and a performance by Joseph Hollmann of the Second Cello Concerto, compared by critics unfavourably with the first. The same judgement has been unjustifiably passed on the Second Cello Sonata, which Saint-Saëns had started during a stay in Alexandria and completed at Biskra. The first movement, in sonata-form, suggests the baroque in the dotted rhythm of its first subject, soon to melt into the gentler lyrical mood of a song by his pupil Fauré. The Scherzo is in the form of a theme and variations, the D minor melody itself in the perpetual rhythm of a tarantelle. The first variation changes the metre, with