Saint-Saëns: Sonates & Trio

Quintessentially French Chamber Music

December 2, 2020By Nick HammondMusic

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is a quintessentially Parisian composer. Born in the city, he went on to study at the Paris Conservatory before eventually becoming the organist at the glorious La Madeleine Church. Despite being a keen traveler, he lived in Paris his entire life.

Saint-Saëns is perhaps unfairly considered an overly conservative composer because, even though he does not employ the chromaticism of a contemporary like Richard Wagner, his music remains endlessly inventive and memorable. He is best known for his grand works, like the Organ Symphony and his opera Samson et Dalila, and for the charm of The Carnival of the Animals, but his wonderful chamber music remains somewhat neglected.

Saint-Saëns: Sonates & Trio (Warner Classics), a new recording of three particularly delightful chamber works by the all-French trio of Renaud Capuçon (violin), Bertrand Chamayou (piano) and Edgar Moreau (cello) is therefore particularly welcome. The centerpiece is Saint-Saëns’ Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, which brings out the best of the three players’ technique and musicianship. The work is framed by two ambitious movements, with three shorter inner movements.

The first movement, marked Allegro non troppo, manages to bring together a weighty melody with some truly shimmering writing for the piano, in particular, delivered with panache by Chamayou. The three middle movements comprise an unconventional dance written in five-time (unlike the usual minuet in three-time), a moving slow movement dominated by a descending musical phrase and a more traditional waltz. The final movement is grand in scale and uses some exquisite contrapuntal writing.

Each of the two other works on the recording features Chamayou with one of the two string players. Chamayou and Moreau (who is still only 26 years old) perform Saint-Saëns’ Cello Sonata No. 1 in C Minor. With three movements (Allegro, Andante tranquillo sostenuto and Allegro moderato), it is a tense, dark and decidedly unshowy piece that exploits the lower register of each instrument well. Both musicians give an intensely committed performance.

The pianist is joined by Capuçon for the best-known piece of the three, the Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Minor (Saint-Saëns loved composing in the minor key), which some believe to be the inspiration for the famous fictional Vinteuil Sonata in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. We do know for certain that Proust was well acquainted with the piece, as it is named and analyzed in his unfinished novel Jean Santeuil (written in the 1890s but only published after Proust’s death).

The first movement, in particular, is remarkable for its syncopated rhythms, constantly changing time signature and contrasting themes. We find both musicians at their best here, playing with flair and passion, never thrown by the composer’s considerable demands on them.

The second-movement Adagio is a dialogue between the two instruments, followed by a somewhat subdued but angular Scherzo movement. The final movement (Allegro molto) allows the violinist in particular to showcase his virtuosic skills.

The important challenge for the musicians here is to maintain the rapid speed without forgetting the musical line, and while Chamayou plays the piano with a light touch, Capuçon, to my ears, is somewhat heavy-handed, the only slight blemish on a wonderfully sensitive rendition of the piece.

If you have been missing the chance to hear French music performed in Parisian concert halls, this delightful recording will transport you far from the ennui of lockdown. I recommend it wholeheartedly.


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