Saint-Saens: Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor; Cello Sonata No. 1 in C minor; Romances Opp. 36 & 51

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Saint-Saens
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor; Cello Sonata No. 1 in C minor; Romances Opp. 36 & 51
PERFORMER: Steven Isserlis (cello), Michael Tilson Thomas, Dudley Moore, Pascal Devoyon (piano)LSO/Michael Tilson Thomas
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 61678 2 DDD
‘Concerto!’ says the box front, comprehensively hiding its light. I don’t mean the presence of Dudley Moore (star of the TV series) in the small print – he and Michael Tilson Thomas are the pianists for a beguilingly drawn-out Swan. It’s rather that the disc’s distinction lies in the couplings: a survey of Saint-Saëns’s music for cello and keyboard that takes in the substantial Sonata No. 1 and some real rarities. Two suave, smiling Romances set the tone of the latter; they include a Chant saphique which moves from easy-going amiability into more ambivalent moods and harmonies, and a surprising Prière with organ – this is a piece from the composer’s eighties, contemporary with late Fauré and sharing something of the same elliptical serenity.

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Isserlis has just the right feel for most of the music, bringing a light touch to its vigour and melodic ease. In the concerto he and Tilson Thomas judge a sequence of speeds that keep the proportions of the whole piece in mind without short-changing the diverse character of each episode.

The only down-side is a reluctance to live at the nerve-ends: the sonata’s first movement has a Brahmsian doggedness, the Allegro appassionato is more ‘apatetico’ until the very end, and the concerto too is short of manic pace – you need to have heard Paul Tortelier letting fly in this music to know how it can go.

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Still, everything is done with skill and care, and the sum of the parts is its own recommendation. Robert Maycock