The First of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concertos springs out of the traps like a greyhound certain of winning, the cellist involved from the off, athletic and then ruminating. Natalie Clein makes too much of this latter quality, the music almost coming to a stand-still, but her heart is in the right place, and she is given lively, considerate and detailed support through Andrew Manze’s conducting. The recording is just a little too ambient and edgy though, and certainly in relation to other recordings from this venue, the cello not so much too forward as a little larger than life and with the orchestra slightly distant and ‘covered’ at times. Nevertheless this reading is very sympathetic to the music – vital, amiable, elegant and mercurial – with Clein’s easeful technique and resonant tone very attractive in themselves and her commitment to the music is palpable.
It was some thirty years before the prolific, multi-talented, much-travelled and long-lived Saint-Saëns got to a Second Cello Concerto (1902). Typically confident and innovative, the composer’s concise two-movement design sports several sections. The robust opening soon gives way to idyllic slow music, rather nocturnal and full of song, and just a little restless. After which the second movement is on the wild side, devilish, an exciting ride that is stopped in its tracks by a wide-ranging cadenza before the orchestra returns to signal a jubilant close. Quirky this work may be but it’s ever so enticing and is given a compelling outing.
La muse et le poète (1910) is aptly named, intimate music for violin and cello, with tender stanzas for both instruments, perhaps lovers reflecting on the ‘remembrance of things past’ that Proust was contemporaneously writing about. But those memories are also voluble, something that also distinguishes the decades-earlier Allegro appassionato, which strides forward with scurrying purpose and also the occasional glance back. Finally, the seraphic gliding of ‘The Swan’ (used by Fokine for Pavlova) from Carnival of the Animals (hidden from the public’s gaze by the composer and not published until after his death), played as scored as part of the bigger piece, cello and two pianos (Julia Lynch & Judith Keany) – although the two keyboard instruments need to be a little more in the picture. The odd reservation aside, this is a handsome collection.