ALBUM TITLE: Saint-Sa‘ns
WORKS: Violin Concerto No. 3; Caprice d’après L’Étude en forme de Valse, Op. 52 (arr. Ysaÿe); Caprice Andalou; Prélude from ‘Le Déluge’, Op. 45;
Valse-Caprice, Op. 76 (Wedding Cake); Allegro Appassionato, Op. 70
PERFORMER: Jean-Jacques Kantorow (violin);
Heini Kärkkäinen (piano); Tapiola
CATALOGUE NO: BIS-CD-1470
Of Saint-Saëns’s Third Violin Concerto, Martin Cooper wrote that the composer ‘rightly regarded the violin as the prima donna assoluta of the orchestra’ and aimed ‘to display the wide range, the agility and the various emotional roles of which the instrument was capable’.This was one of the several work Saint-Saëns wrote for Sarasate, who gave the first performance in January 1881. But even though Sarasate was noted for his purity of style and beauty of tone, there is no reason to suppose that these qualities excluded passion – or, even if they had, that Sarasate’s style should remain the one and only model.
Right from the opening appassionato phrase on the G string, Jean-Jacques Kantorow goes for broke, ignoring traditional views that Saint-Saëns was a Classicist at sea in the Romantic maelstrom, or at best a ‘Romantic in chains’. Kantorow can be delicate too, while his brisk speeds (he takes pretty well everything a touch faster than Philippe Graffin on Hyperion) ensure that nothing sags – the second movement, which Cooper calls a ‘floating barcarolle’, is precisely that, and the finale fizzes with nervous energy. Graffin, if less in-your-face, is technically on the same high level and ideally I would recommend having both recordings, especially as Graffin also gives us the first two concertos. I like to think it’s a reflection on Saint-Saëns’s lately improved status that his best music (among which this concerto certainly is) can accommodate such varying approaches. The other items on the BIS disc are all lightweight, and Kantorow and Heini Kärkkäinen despatch these with apparently effortless bravura. A special mention goes to Kärkkäinen for her fairy-like envoi to the Wedding Cake Caprice, even if the rather resonant acoustic militates slightly against her staccato playing at the start and inclines her middle register towards plumminess. It is kinder to the legato and bravura qualities of the Allegro appassionato, with its echoes of Chopin’s Third Scherzo in the same key. Kantorow responds to the Spanish elements in the Caprice andalou, based on tunes Saint-Saëns heard during a tour of Andalusia, with infectious enthusiasm and a wide dynamic palette – conforming to the French view of Spain as a land of extremes. The violinist is perhaps at his most startling in the Etude en forme de valse. Personally I feel this is inescapably piano music and that the arranger, Ysaÿe, was guilty of a bit of lily-gilding: however well the violinist copes with Ysaÿe’s pyrotechnics – and Kantorow leaves no note untuned – we don’t get that seductive rippling effect on the initial upward arpeggio (try Cortot’s earlier recording for Victor of 1919). But as gilded lilies go, this one certainly carries more gilt than guilt. The recording is spacious with soloists well forward. Roger Nichols