Neglected Saint-Saëns

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

It is ironic that the most famous piece written by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was his musical joke, "Le Carnaval des animaux: Grande fantaisie zoologique" ("The Carnival of the Animals"). Ironic because, except for the section called "Le Cygne" ("The Swan"), he withdrew the piece after just a few performances and wouldn't allow it to be published until after his death. He evidently didn't want this auditory burlesque to interfere with his reputation as a serious composer.

"The Swan" was a hit from its first performance on March 9, 1886, and is arguably the most famous piece for cello ever written by anyone. And the rest of the composition, from the "Introduction and Royal March of the Lion" and "Elephant" through "Personnages a longues oreilles" ("Persons with Long Ears") and "Pianists," to "Fossils" and the "Finale," is the funniest music I have ever heard, with or without the extra touch of clever wit sometimes added to American recordings by the poems of Ogden Nash.

Although "The Carnival of the Animals" proved for all eternity that Saint-Saëns had an excellent sense of humor, he was basically a no-tickling-allowed, conservative composer throughout the large bulk of his work. Yet, except for his over-recorded "Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78" (I counted 35 performances available in a recent CD catalog), the Halloween favorite "Dance macabre" (24 recordings), the "Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor" (20 recordings), the "Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor" (17 CDs), and a few other perpetually "popular" works, a large number of Saint-Saëns' compositions are unjustly neglected these days.

For those who love sensual, romantic, melodious music, there is a veritable treasure trove of pieces by Saint-Saëns which qualify as compact discoveries! Especially chamber music. And, as Gilbert & Sullivan would have put it, I've got a little list:

the very top is the "Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 167." In the days of the long-playing record, I literally wore out my recording of this piece. I now own a CD with British clarinetist Gervase de Peyer and Australian-born pianist Gwenneth Pryor (Chandos CHAN 8526). It starts right off with one of the most hauntingly unforgettable tunes I've ever heard and doesn't let up for the next 15 minutes. The performance is top-notch, as is the sound, and the CD is filled out with several other clarinet classics highly worthy of your listening time: "Premiere Rhapsodie," "Arabesque No. 2," and "The Girl with the Flaxman - I mean Flaxen - Hair," all by Debussy, the "Sonata for Clarinet and Piano" by Poulenc, "Andantino, Op. 30, No. 1" by Schmitt, Ravel's Piece en forme de habanera, and the happy-go-lucky "Canzonetta, Op. 19," by Pierne.

Saint-Saëns' "Piano Trio, Op. 18," and his "Septet, Op. 65," are both favorite chamber music pieces of mine. They come coupled together on Virgin Classics VC 7 90751-2, performed by the Nash Ensemble of London, an excellent chamber group. This recording also includes "The Carnival of the Animals," without the Nash verses, as it happens.

Saint-Saëns' works for cello and piano are conveniently available together on a Chamade recording (CHCD 5628), including the "Sonata No. 1, Op. 32," the "Sonata No. 2, Op. 123," the "Allegro Appassionato, Op. 43," "Romance, Op. 51," and, of course, "The (ever-present) Swan." This French recording, which lasts longer than an hour, features sensitive performances from French cellist Emmanuel Gaugue and French pianist Erik Berchot. The attractive cover is by French impressionist Camille Pissarro: "La Diligence a Louveciennes." This CD is sweeter than French ice cream on a warm spring day, and not nearly as fattening.

Another French recording of Saint-Saëns I admire features violinist Olivier Charlier and pianist Jean Hubeau performing the "Sonatas for Piano and Violin, Op. 75 and Op. 102," along with the lovely "Elegies, Op. 143 and 160," the "Berceuse, Op. 38" and the "Romance, Op. 37" (MusiFrance/Erato MF 245 017-2). The gorgious, flowing melodies of the Op. 75 sonata mix passion and melancholy with moments of light gaiety -- Saint-Saëns at his best.

I'm emphasizing Saint-Saëns' chamber music here because it seems to be the most neglected of his output. But if you don't have all of this composer's piano concertos, you are missing some delightful music. The Bach-inspired "Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22," is my first choice, but I also love the "Piano Concerto No. 5 in F, Op. 103," known as "The Egyptian." I have these concertos on a series of EMI digital releases with Jean-Philippe Collard at the keyboard and Andre Previn conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. "Piano Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 17" (CDC 7 49757 2) comes with some miniature compact discoveries, including the jazzy "Wedding Cake" Caprice-Valse, Op. 76. Concertos 2 and 4 are together on CDC 7 47816 2, and 3 and 5 fill up CDC 7 49051 2.

One of the most immediately accessible pieces by Saint-Saëns is a short (less than 10 minutes) symphonic poem called "Phaeton, Op. 39." I just can't understand why this exciting, catchy orchestral work isn't as well known as the "Dance macabre." Perhaps if it were associated with some holiday... The recording I have (Pan Classics 510 078) features the Basle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ronald Zollman and also includes "Trois tableaux symphoniques d'apres la foi, Op. 130," the "Symphony No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 55," and the "Festival Overture, Op. 133."

Yes, there's much more to Camille Saint-Saëns than pianists in a zoo and macabre melodies for Halloween. Give him a chance to show he's serious.

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