Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 2; La muse et le poète; Romance, Op. 67; Cello Sonata No. 2

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COMPOSERS: Saint-Sa‘ns
LABELS: RCA Red Seal
WORKS: Cello Concerto No. 2; La muse et le poète; Romance, Op. 67; Cello Sonata No. 2
PERFORMER: Steven Isserlis (cello), Joshua Bell (violin), Pascal Devoyon (piano); NDR SO/Christoph Eschenbach
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 63518 2
Among Saint-Saëns’s ten concertos, two are for cello. The first, in A minor, has become universally popular and, like the contemporaneous First Sonata, it’s an eminently approachable work. Surprisingly, their progeny never managed to fire the imagination of cellists or audiences so decisively. Take the ardently heroic and brilliant Second Concerto of 1902. In many senses, it’s a much finer creation than its famous predecessor, despite being represented in the catalogues by just a handful of recordings, from Torleif Thedéen (BIS), Maria Kliegel (Naxos) and Dominique de Williencourt (Arion).

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Only Thedéen’s accomplished BIS version with the Tapiola Sinfonietta under Jean-Jacques Kantorow did the piece much justice. In Steven Isserlis, however, this Cinderella concerto finds a superbly committed exponent, fully able to meet its massive technical difficulties head on, and charismatic enough to convince entrenched nay-sayers of its real worth. Kliegel and de Williencourt alerted us only to the possibilities of the work; Thedéen went further, but Isserlis realises them fully, and one can only hope that more cellists will take up this neglected concerto as a result.

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My shelves also yielded up Ruggiero Ricci and Georges Mallach’s dated Turnabout recording of another chunk of Saint-Saëns reliquary, La muse et le poète, premiered in 1910 by Eugène Ysaÿe and dedicatee of the Second Cello Concerto, Joseph Hollmann. Isserlis and Joshua Bell accord it a rapturously beautiful performance, and this excellent disc concludes with an equally definitive traversal of the seldom-heard Second Cello Sonata of 1907, with Pascal Devoyon. Michael Jameson