Saint-Saens: Piano Quintet, Op. 14; Piano Quartet, Op. 41; Septet, Op. 65; Clarinet Sonata, Op. 167

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COMPOSERS: Saint-Saens
LABELS: Hyperion
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.

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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.

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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