Saint-Saëns Festival – Cello Sonatas

Saint-Saëns
Cello Sonata No.1 in C minor, Op.32
Cello Sonata No.2 in F, Op.123

Steven Isserlis (cello) &
Pascal Devoyon (piano)


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 May, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Both of Saint-Saëns’s cello sonatas made for excellent lunchtime listening (also broadcast live by Radio 3) under the spirited and committed advocacy of Steven Isserlis and Pascal Devoyon, duo-partners, Devoyon not an accompanist, a role that Isserlis was adamant about when interviewed afterwards (as part of a Saint-Saëns Study Day in the Wigmore’s Bechstein Room). Isserlis isn’t one to fall in with an interviewer’s slant, and was quite feisty regarding generalisations and assumptions. Cormac Newark stated that the chorale-like idea of the C minor sonata’s second movement is based on a tune from a Meyerbeer opera. Isserlis took one bemused look at the manuscript passed to him, asked Newark to “sing it”, and dismissed the connection, citing a melody from Schumann’s Op.39 Liederkreis as altogether closer to what Saint-Saëns had written, which is first heard over a lively idea in the piano. The two elements are shared between the instruments as the movement progresses.

This compact C minor sonata, about 20 minutes, begins with a Beethovenian flourish that sets up passionate and intimate contrasts in a movement that seems in almost continual development. Following that ecclesiastical/pastoral Andante, the finale (a substitute for the original that so disappointed Saint-Saëns’s mother) is a sustained display of energy, not without aching lyricism though, and which sets the seal on a work that is powerful, vivid and thoughtful.

The other sonata, from 1905, is a quite superb piece, one altogether longer, about 32 minutes in this performance, which proved a significant reminder that Saint-Saëns cannot be pigeonholed. Here is yet another take on ‘form’ from the chameleon Frenchman with expression that is now differently suited and booted, if remaining similarly consummate in terms of compositional skill. The declamatory opening leads to a blissful second subject, Saint-Saëns’s structural adeptness not eschewing elasticity and allowing through a Schumann-like sense of fantasy and poetry. There follows a novel scherzo, a set of variations that gallops into view and includes a fugue and a scurrying ‘of the night’ conclusion. In some respects it’s the slow movement that most haunts the imagination, a quite beautiful, reposed and soulful Romanze, exquisitely played here, that Saint-Saëns suggested would “make sensitive souls weep”. The finale modulates with good intentions, eloquent in its activity. It’s a great work, one that Saint-Saëns played at the Wigmore Hall (then Bechstein) with Joseph Hollman for whom it was written. The encore, jettisoned by Radio 3, was another Romanze, one in F minor, and another charmer.

The commitment and teamwork of Isserlis and Devoyon was a pleasure in itself, partners indeed, with Devoyon dealing athletically with the fistfuls of notes that Saint-Saëns (a wonderful pianist) deals out, and Isserlis devotedly proving that Camille Saint-Saëns really is a composer deserving wider recognition for his gifts, brilliance and innovation. This Festival has been well timed and executed.

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