ALBUM TITLE: Saint-Saens
WORKS: Piano Quintet, Op. 14; Piano Quartet, Op. 41; Septet, Op. 65; Clarinet Sonata, Op. 167
PERFORMER: The Nash Ensemble
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67431-2
Conditioned as we are to think of Saint-Saëns as a grumpy old fossil – the ‘sharp little man’ Stravinsky noticed sitting sourly at the premiere of Le sacre du printemps – we tend to forget that in his early years he was a revolutionary.
Mind you, the three late woodwind sonatas are far from being fossilised; and are here given fluent, affectionate performances – though in the Lento of the Clarinet Sonata Richard Hosford rightly picks up on the composer’s more serious intentions. The Caprice and the Septet show us Saint-Saëns in the full vigour and mastery of middle age, and the Nash know how to capitalise on these qualities: these are full-blooded performances, packed with energy and colour, and every corner is turned under complete control.
For me, though, the revelations were the early Piano Quartet and the even earlier Quintet, this latter not otherwise currently represented in the catalogue. Here the 20-year-old composer gives evidence of his extraordinary gifts, both as composer and pianist. Nor is it any kind of dutiful replay of other men’s work; even if his habit of saying everything twice rather spoils the first movement, from there on invention and virtuosity are locked in a fascinating interplay. The slow movement is noble without being dull, the scherzo a showcase for Ian Brown’s splendid fingerwork. As for the Quartet, here the 40-year-old throws down a gauntlet to his younger colleagues, saying ‘Beat that!’ Few of them ever did. Altogether a wonderful pair of discs. Roger Nichols