Saint-Saëns: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2

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COMPOSERS: Saint-Saens
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2
PERFORMER: Fine Arts Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: Naxos 8.572454

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Visiting the USA in 1906, Saint-Saëns told a journalist that his ambition was to write ‘a really beautiful string quartet’. At best, this was hardly a ringing endorsement of his E minor Quartet, completed seven years earlier and, sadly, I think his opinion was sound. As always when relatively unplayed works are brought out from seclusion, one does have to ask why they’re not played more often. In this case, the material really isn’t up to much and even the composer’s fugal mastery can’t save it. But matters aren’t helped in this case by the very close recording, which makes many climaxes distinctly hard on the ear. There are also a couple of sudden increases in tempo, in the second and last movements, which rather unsettle things.

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The G major Quartet, from Saint-Saëns’s sunset years, is more successful and more fun – as the century drove wildly on towards Expressionist chromaticism, he was heading firmly back to the Enlightenment, and the first movement, designed to illustrate ‘Youth’, is a delightful piece of Haydnry in which the lighter textures are more comfortable for the ear. In the second movement (‘Loss of Youth’) the rhetoric is less clearly articulated, and here a little more signposting from the players would have helped. Roger Nichols