Saint-Saëns Festival – Opening Concert (Wigmore Hall, 21 April)

Variations on a theme by Beethoven
Sonata for clarinet and piano in E flat
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (arr. Bizet for violin and piano)
Carnival of the Animals

Joshua Bell (violin)
Harvey de Souza (violin)
Susie Mészáros (viola)
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Corin Long (double bass)
Emily Beynon (flute)
Julian Bliss (clarinet)
Colin Currie (percussion)
Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)
Philip Moore (piano)
Simon Butteriss (narrator)

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 21 April, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

In a recent review of a new biography of Mendelssohn, Charles Rosen put forward the not altogether new proposition that an extraordinary technical facility can often be inimical to the creation of art: he is asserting the primacy of struggle in the artistic process, the lack of which results in brilliant though ultimately superficial works. Of course this assumes that the goal of craftsmanship is the creation of masterpieces – which is clearly not the case. You has to measure the result with the intent – and if much of Saint-Saëns’s chamber music was written with the intention of delighting both audience and performers alike with its charm and ingenuity, then, judging from tonight’s wholly satisfying concert, the results speak for themselves.

The concert began with the exciting set of variations, for two pianos, on a theme from Beethoven’s piano sonata Op.31/3. There was much for pianists Simon Crawford-Phillips and Philip Moore to sink their fingers into, from the flowing Czernyesque first variation (looking forward to the Carnival of the Animals), played with a crisp attack and wonderful dynamic control, to the tremendous fugue of the ninth variation, which really gave the duo a chance to show off their command of articulation and ensemble playing. In between we were treated to a catalogue of embellishments courtesy of the composer’s seemingly inexhaustible invention, with elegant syncopation, tremelando and witty Mozartian trills giving way to the mock severity of the seventh variation, where the main theme is given a march-like treatment in the minor key.

Then the diminutive figure of young clarinettist Julian Bliss came to the stage (joined by Philip Moore) to present the Sonata in E flat. Dating from 1921, Saint-Saëns’s last year, this remarkable work maintains a special place in the clarinet repertoire, and deservedly so, for it explores all the resources of that instrument in a truly cantabile style; that is to say, in the way Bach understood the term: fully articulated and closer to speech than song. Not there was any shortage of song, with the glorious opening theme of the Allegretto, in which Bliss excelled with his warm tone and sensitive shaping of phrases, passing through the wide intervals, running scales and playfulness of the Allegro animato in order to be transformed, swimming in the minor mode among the thick, funereal chords of the piano’s lower register, in the Lento. A return to the upper register for both instruments leads directly to the joyous Molto Allegretto and a return to the material of the first movement. This performance was warmly applauded.

Next on stage was American violinist Joshua Bell, who performed the lyrical Berceuse, accompanied by Simon Crawford-Phillips. I felt this performance to be a little indifferent: Bell’s playing, although technically flawless, lacked involvement. The piece could be considered slight, but it is not without charm, and has shadows of Saint-Saëns’s pupil Fauré’s writing in the main melody and an effective middle section where the violin takes over the rocking accompaniment figure of the piano. However, there was no lack of involvement in the ubiquitous Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Bell absolutely sizzled, everything in place: colour and vitality, sharply characterised phrasing and dynamics, richly sonorous double and triple stopping (perfectly in tune!) and an abandon in the upper register. And Crawford-Phillips was up to the challenge, providing able support for Bell’s pyrotechnics and bringing out salient lines with great taste. Needless to say the audience went wild (in Wigmore Hall terms).

The final piece was the famous ensemble work Carnival of the Animals, showing Saint-Saëns’s inventiveness at its most mischievous. This was a warm, fun performance, with actor Simon Butteriss suitably droll in his rhymed introductions and all the musicians really letting themselves go in a litany of quotes and subversions. Steven Isserlis, the Artistic Director of the Festival, didn’t disappoint in ’The swan’, his sublime musicianship and beauty of tone making you forget you’ve heard the piece a million times.

The Saint-Saëns Festival continues tonight, 22 April, in the Barbican, and then at the Royal Academy of Music and Wigmore Hall until 18 May.

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