Saint-Saëns Festival – Salon Concert

Fantasia and fugue for piano and harmonium, Op 8/1
Prière for cello and harmonium
Les Fées
Vogue, vogue la galère
Romance for violin, piano and harmonium, Op.27
Barcarolle in F, Op.108
Septet in E flat, Op.65
Les odeurs de Paris
Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe
Pleurs d’or, Op.72

Anthony Marwood (violin)
Steven Isserlis & Richard Lester (cellos)
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Benjamin Hullett (tenor)
Graham Johnson, Pascal Devoyon & Nicola Eimer (piano)
Thomas Wilson (harmonium)
Lauretta Pope (harp)

Students from the Royal Academy of Music:
Harriet MacKenzie (violin)
Abigail Fenna (viola)
Priscilla Vela-Vico (double bass)
Paul Skinner (flageolet)
Patrick Flanaghan (musette)
Heidi Sutcliffe & Ross Brown (trumpets)
Paul Kildea (conductor)
Simon Butteriss (narrator)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 18 May, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

So after four weeks of a wide range of concerts, talks, workshops, masterclasses and study days, we bade farewell to Saint-Saëns with a crowded Wigmore platform including most of the players in the concert, but not all on their own instruments. As Paul Kildea explained (in his role of conductor, not as director of the venue), they had attempted as far as possible to stick to the performing aesthetic of Saint-Saëns’s time. There was only one concession to modernity: the enhancement of Steven Isserlis’s nightingale in the UK première of the curious, unpublished toy symphony that is Saint-Saëns’ Les Odeurs de Paris (yes, that is “The Odours of Paris”). Scored for two trumpets, flageolet, musette, piano, harp and such toys as nightingale (Isserlis), quail, cuckoo (Anthony Marwood), and cricket and tea chest (grosse caisse) played by doyen of accompanists Graham Johnson, this Grand March in D was a quaint encore, which didn’t outstay its welcome. Indeed, it was emphatically concluded by a pistol shot, courtesy of Mr Johnson, which presumably is meant to silence the nightingale for good!

The evening attempted to recreate a salon concert as might have been held 100 years ago. There were 12 pieces, in which Saint-Saëns was joined by Bizet, Gounod and Fauré in songs and his friend Liszt with an Élégie for cello, harp, harmonium and piano. The harmonium looked a bizarre and battered addition to the platform in the first half, compared to the bright shiny Steinway, but New Zealander Thomas Wilson was an impressive exponent of it in seven pieces, with various collaborators. Timothy Robinson was indisposed, his place taken by fresh-voiced Benjamin Hullett, a perfect partner to Lucy Crowe. Simon Butteriss was also a late addition who connected the evening with humorous writings by Saint-Saëns, an indication of his mastery not just in music, but also of acerbic wit.

At the interval I overheard a comment from an elderly member of the packed audience to the effect he had “not yet heard anything I would call music but I know the Septet, and I like that.” Curiously I found the Septet – string quintet, complete with double bass, piano and trumpet, here Ross Brown not the listed Heidi Sutcliffe – the least interesting, the trumpet not able to offer enough contrast to the main chamber group, and thus the textures seemed to become commonplace. Saint-Saëns obviously agreed, reporting amazement that the piece was so popular!

But as to the rest of the evening not being music, what tosh! It was mostly effortless, but it was not cosmetic. Saint-Saëns suffers the same as Haydn, and is constantly misunderstood. The late 20th-century revision in opinion of Papa Haydn hopefully will happen to Saint-Saëns (and, for that matter, Martinů) and we can enjoy his music without the encumbrance of ignorant opinion. There are enough hearts, minds and ears for Saint-Saëns’s music to get a regular hearing, and nothing I have heard in this Festival has made me change my opinion that here is a man who wrote music to be enjoyed. It’s not facile but inspiring, and Steven Isserlis is to be praised for bringing together so many like-minded performers. Perhaps not surprisingly the chamber works concentrated on those that are string based. Only the Clarinet Sonata was represented from the woodwind, and it is regrettable that space couldn’t be found for both the Oboe and Bassoon Sonatas, written at the same time as the one for clarinet, which form his final works from 1921. But perhaps Isserlis has them up his sleeve for a second Festival.

All the performers at this closing concert were devoting their services for free and the concert’s proceeds go to the foundation of a new Saint-Saëns Society. Please contact the Wigmore Hall to express interest. Saint-Saëns’s time is surely yet to come!

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