Saint-Saens: Cello Sonata No. 1 in C minor; Cello Sonata No. 2 in F; The Swan (arr. Godowsky)

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COMPOSERS: Saint-Saens
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Cello Sonata No. 1 in C minor; Cello Sonata No. 2 in F; The Swan (arr. Godowsky)
PERFORMER: Mats Lidstrom (cello)Bengt Forsberg (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 6 7095
Apart from a few brief but celebrated exceptions, Saint-Saens’s chamber works are the most neglected area of his output. This seems to have more to do with fashion than quality, and this Swedish duo, champions of lesser-known works, seem set on rectifying the situation. Saint-Saens’s two elegant and eminently playable cello sonatas were written in the same years as his two cello concertos. Separated as the No. Is (1872) are from the No. 2s by 33 years, this can hardly be coincidence — perhaps this most fluent of composers had inspiration to spare from the larger works.

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Lidstrom’s enthusiasm comes across clearly in his full though idiosyncratic booklet notes, which are at pains to refute commonly held prejudices against the composer. The duo’s vigorous and well-punctuated performances, with no detail glossed over, are well served by Hyperion’s clear and immediate recorded sound (though Lidstrom’s breathing is sometimes intrusive). It is in the slow movements that Lidstrom satisfies less: the elegant phrases do not always meet with sufficiently fluid bowing and the C-string tone is muzzy. Steven Isserlis and Pascal Devoyon’s recording of Sonata No. 1 (coupled with the First Concerto) offers a better overall sense of line and more dramatic interpretation, with more varied tonal colour.

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Lidstrom and Forsberg’s ‘Swan’ is as exquisite yet inconsequential as it was originally intended to be. But Godowsky’s wacky ‘transcription’ of the piece (for violin and piano, here played down the octave), with its double-stoppings and hysterical stopped harmonics, ends the disc on a discordant note. Janet Banks