Wednesday, 22 February 2012

What happened to Saint-Saëns reputation?

I have just acquired a large volume entitled Camille Saint-Saëns – A Life, by Brian Rees (Chatto and Windus 1999). Amazingly this was the first biography of him in English for thirty years. 

In his lifetime, Saint-Saëns was considered the genius of French music but, given his long life (1835-1921), his reputation was in decline by the time of his death. Nevertheless he was accorded a spectacular funeral with a military escort for his body to the cathedral, an archbishop conducting the funeral service and a silver hearse drawn by six black horses.

Now over ninety years since his death has his reputation really improved? Ask the ordinary music lover what they know of Saint-Saëns music and they will naturally mention Carnival of the Animals and in particular The Swan; they will almost certainly mention the Dance Macabre, perhaps the Third (Organ) Symphony, they may even talk of the Second and Fifth Piano Concertos, as well as the first cello concerto and third Violin Concerto and they might know of his opera Samson and Delila.

What few will remember is that Saint-Saëns wrote some thirteen operas. Type into a search engine or Amazon  looking for recordings of any of these operas and all you’ll get is Samson and Delila. Yet at the premiere of his opera Dejanire the audience surged down the aisles shouting ‘vive Saint-Saëns’.

Saint-Saëns wrote five symphonies, which have all been recorded, five piano concertos as well as a large amount of chamber music and organ music.

So why has Saint-Saëns reputation still not really recovered? No one disputes his technical ability and the sheer craftsmanship of his writing, but many seem to regard the virtuosic nature of much of his music as a failing. Saint-Saëns defended this aspect of his music saying, ‘ It is virtuosity itself I mean to defend. It is the source of the picturesque in music…’

Did Debussy and Ravel effectively blot out all that went before them? If so what of Saint-Saëns’ near contemporaries?

Certainly Charles Gounod (1818-1893) is not remembered for much other than his opera Faust yet he also wrote twelve operas as well as much else including two attractive symphonies

Cesar Franck (1822-1890) seems to be remembered by his Symphonic Variations and Symphony in D minor but again little else yet there is some wonderful chamber music and organ works.

Gabriel Faure (1845-1924), despite living well into the 20th century, seems to have fared better. Although his Requiem is his most known and performed work, his chamber and piano music feature regularly in both concerts and recordings. So we can’t accuse Debussy and Ravel of overshadowing him.

Albéric Magnard (1865-1914) was from the generation after Saint-Saëns but suffered a worse fate. He died young, fighting off the Germans at his doorstep with a gun. His four symphonies have now been recorded at least three times but what of the rest of his work. Well, his output was fairly small but there are three operas and a number of chamber works.

Vincent D’Indy (1851-1931), another from the next generation was a ‘one work’ composer remembered only for his Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français (Symphony on a French Mountain Song). Yet he wrote three symphonies of which his Second Symphony is something of a masterpiece. This symphony has already been recorded more than once (my own favourite recording is the Monte Carlo Philharmonic conducted by James DePreist on Koch, obtainable through Amazon ) but I’m glad to see Chandos Records undertaking a complete orchestral cycle of his music.

So what about Saint-Saëns and is he really unfairly neglected? My own view is that his reputation has now come around to a more balanced one. Certainly he could not be described as a compositional genius whatever his pianistic skills were. At his best he reaches a beauty and, yes, a virtuosity that are always worth listening to and at times are quite breathtaking. Add to that the unusual textural sounds that he can conjure up, then I am sure that his music will always last.

I have recently listening to Saint-Saëns’ violin concertos, two of which were unknown to me .

The French violinist, Fanny Clamagirand, is the first-prize winner at both the 2005 Kreisler violin competition in Vienna and the 2007 Monte Carlo competition. On this recording she gives a sparkling account of all three Saint-Saëns violin concertos.

Playing a 1700 Matteo Goffriller violin, Fanny Clamagirand not only has the virtuosic technique for these works but brings out the colour and texture. It is Saint-Saëns’ Third Violin Concerto that has remained in the repertoire yet the other two have much to offer.

The earlier First Concerto packs much fine music into its twelve minute duration, whilst the exuberant second, written before No.1 but only published much later, should be as popular as the third. Just listen to the opening movement that fairly dances along as well as the beautiful and affecting slow movement.

If you already know the third then listen to the slow movement with its beautiful harmonic effects at the close to hear what a fine soloist this is. Throughout, Patrick Gallois and the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskla give excellent support.

The recording, with the soloist set slightly forward is first rate.

Whilst there is also a fine recording of these three concertos played by Philippe Graffin and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins on Hyperion , Clamagirand brings so much freshness to the music that this issue is well worth considering.

In my next blog I’m moving from lost reputations to one that some critics have tried to damage, to no effect, that of Tchaikovsky.

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