Saint-Saëns was a prodigy polymath from whom music flowed effortlessly. Symphonies, concertos, chamber works, opera – there was seemingly nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to. 1886 witnessed the single greatest success of his career, as his epic Third ‘Organ’ Symphony thundered its way around the globe.
That same year he composed a ‘grand zoological fantasy’ in 14 movements, scored for two pianos, string quartet, double bass, flute, clarinet, glockenspiel, xylophone, and glass harmonica/celesta, which sprang from the opposite end of the musical spectrum: The Carnival of the Animals.
Saint-Saëns was so worried about the harm this plaisanterie might do to his reputation as a serious composer, that after two private performances he placed it under lock and key where it remained until after his death. Only one movement survived this embargo: The Swan.
The best recording of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals
Güher & Süher Pekinel (piano)
Radio France PO/Marek Janowski (1990)
Warner Apex 25646 21252
With its hilarious send-ups – slow-motion can-can in ‘Tortoises’, Rossini’s Barber of Seville in ‘Fossils’, Berlioz’s Waltz of the Sylphs in ‘Elephant’ – and a rollicking finale that brings everyone back for a curtain call, a first-rate performance of The Carnival of the Animals should light up the musical sky.
And that is just what Marek Janowski, working alongside one of the world’s most celebrated piano duos, achieves here. By electing to gently cajole Saint-Saëns’s humorous asides rather than milking them for all their worth, this is more Hardy than Laurel, and none the worse for that.
In ‘Tortoises’, the Pekinel twins create a magically veiled sonority that creates the impression of being experienced through a heat wave, while ‘Aquarium’ – in which the glass harmonica takes a star turn – quietly glistens like an iridescent jewel. The octave scales of ‘Pianists’ are played dead straight until the change to thirds – the real point of the joke – is signalled by a sudden relaxing of tempo and subtle change to a more ‘effortful’ sonority.
Strangely, the very opening is played as repeated notes rather than the customary tremolandos, but in the context of such a beguiling performance this is hardly a major distraction. Janowski and colleagues join in the proceedings with alacrity and the engineering combines ambient warmth and detail to perfection.
Three more great recordings
Patricia Prattis Jennings & Joseph Villa (piano)
Pittsburgh SO/Previn (1980)
Philips 442 6082 (2 discs)
For a performance with a large string ensemble, André Previn’s Pittsburgh classic reigns supreme. The humour is deftly handled and deliciously understated, tempos are superbly judged, and in ‘Personages with long ears’ Previn insists on the donkeys’ whinnying being thrown off by the violins as flying harmonics rather than taken in the safety of first position.
Jennings and Villa play their vital roles as true ensemble players rather than ‘star’ soloists, and so natural and unforced is Previn’s direction, immaculately balanced by Philips’s engineers, that one can sit back enjoy this immaculately crafted score without any distraction.
Michel Dalberto & Frank Braley (piano)
Renaud Capuçon, Esther Hoppe, Beatrice Muthebet, Gautier Capuçon, Janne Saksala, Emmanuel Pahud, Paul Meyer, Florent Jordelet (2003)
Virgin 545 6022
For something a little more adventurous, which reveals Saint-Saëns’s mini-masterpiece in all its original chamber-scale glory, the Capuçon brothers and distinguished colleagues cry out to be heard. Things arguably go a little too far in ‘Pianists’, in which the protagonists get wildly out of synch with one another, but elsewhere the uncontainable exuberance of this performance carries all before it.
Rarely has the ‘Cuckoo’ sounded quite so absurd in the context of the pianists’ chorale-like musings, while these particular ‘Fossils’ dust themselves down and lift their skirts in the air for some well-aimed high-kicks. Gautier Capuçon’s ‘Swan’ and Emmanuel Pahud’s ‘Aviary’ are sublime, and the whistle-stop finale is guaranteed to send spirits soaring.
Pascal Rogé & Cristina Ortiz (piano)
London Sinfonietta/Charles Dutoit (1977)
Decca 444 5522
If Güher and Süher Pekinel are gently persuasive and chamber-scale in their responses, pianists Pascal Rogé and Cristina Ortiz play with an outsize virtuosity that is enormously imposing. Their ‘Lion’ has very broad, powerful shoulders, their ‘Wild Asses’ gallop at phenomenal speed, and their ‘Hens and Cockerels’ peck and strut their stuff with imperious indifference.
These ‘Tortoises’ appear to float past balletically and even the ‘Elephant’ sounds as though he may have been caught off-guard wearing a tutu. Yet there is an unmistakably Gallic charm and joie de vivre about this reading which suggests that everyone is having a good time. Charles Dutoit makes rather a meal of the introduction – more César Franck than snappy curtain-raiser – but maybe that’s another in-joke.
And one to avoid…
A bit of a naughty indulgence from Eugene Ormandy and his fabulous Philadelphians. Solo lines register clearly enough – although the pianos tend to come and go a bit – but it’s those Tchaikovsky-in-overdrive strings that dominate. For ‘Elephant’ read ‘Herd of Elephants’ as the entire double-bass section gives your woofers an aerobic work-out. It’s gloriously OTT, but probably not quite what Saint-Saëns originally had in mind.
This article originally featured in the June 2010 issue of BBC Music Magazine.