Camille Saint-Saëns: Suite algérienne, opus 60 – Suite in D major, opus 49 – Suite in D minor, opus 16bis (version for cello and orchestra) – Serenade in E-Flat major, opus 15 (version for orchestra)
Guillermo Pastrana (cello), Basque National Orchestra, Jun Märkl (conductor)
Recording: Sede Orquesta Sinfónica de Euskadi, San Sebastián, Spain (December 9, 10, 15 and 16, 2016) – 67’04
Naxos 8.573732 – Booklet in English and French
Inside the Pantheon of highly respected French composers is the stately Camille Saint-Saëns. His selections, under the directorship of Jun Märkl, flourish with every turn of the page, and this release issues a sense of pride and polish.
The Suite algérienne is a fit opening to the CD since the “Prélude” is a conservative color wash leading into the port of Algiers. Camille Saint-Saëns, the proverbial seasoned traveler, was never at a loss for musically depicting what his eyes witnessed. Those dreams come alive through the Basque National Orchestra (BNO) and the many evocative, reverent dimensions folded inside the four movements. The original “stand-alone” piece, Rêverie du soir (A Blidah), is single-handedly captivating and a lyrical treasure while contrasting with the salutatory “Marche militaire française”, reaffirming the pride of France.
One can only imagine the Suite in D major being constructed for harmonium. Unusual and distinctively elicited, granted, Saint-Saëns’ desire to turn this work into an orchestral rendition in 1869 holds greater merit. Inclusive instrumentation adds a reef of superior colouring to enliven each of the five movements. Skirted with Baroque gauze, there is an anticipated Ravelian vibe inside the “Rigaudon” from Le Tombeau de Couperin. Saint-Saëns’ flute duet inside the “Gavotte” delivers idyllic harmonies during the middle portion while the most impressive sweeps undoubtedly rest with BNO’s handling of the politely-charmed “Romance.” M. Märkl truly adds delicate substance to this fully-poised score. Seguing into the “Final” speaks to Mendelssohn...moto perpetuo lives up to its meaning from beginning to end.
If there’s an award given to the moodiest œuvre on this CD, it comes through avenues of cellist Guillermo Pastrana. While Saint-Saëns originally wrote his Suite in D minor for cello and piano in 1866, the long absence of time, moving to 1919 when he re-tailored (and added two more movements) the work, gave the Frenchman time to sauté in maturity and give more French classical depth. Granada-born Pastrana’s well-apportioned lethargic position conveys Saint-Saëns’ true meaning for the majority of the piece: music for cello fits into a sort of endless recital of jejune complacency. The take succinctly completes the task in four of the five movements.
But it’s within the “Romance” that we catch Guillermo Pastrana mildly unharnessing earlier neutralities, giving [the] cellist opportunities to bask with bow. We hear a tender connection with soft, meaningful legato. The conclusive “Tarentelle” harkens back to the Violin Concerto in B minor’s “Molto moderato e maestoso” without the acerbic sharpness. There is a natural continuum for M. Pastrana to patiently ratchet up the drama though the composition is tempered by musical mollification. And while Saint Saëns’ intensity hovers like a subduer, the score breathes lyrical beauty through the soloist.
It’s always gratifying to discover hidden gems inside particular recordings, and Naxos is no exception. Here we’re treated to the rarely performed Serenade in E-Flat major. While being one of Camille Saint-Saëns’ earlier works (1865), the elegant delicacy, a virtual diamond-in-the-rough, could be explained by the fact that this composition was dedicated to Princess Mathilde Bonaparte Demidoff who exercised her powers to dismiss Saint-Saëns from military service.
Pleasantly filled with infinitesimal roulades, BNO’s rendering is justifiably owed an intense spotlight. Sparkling harp, a coy oboe lead-in and gentle graces notes, in the very least, help capture the score’s demureness. This pristine wash anticipates 1872’s Le Rouet d’Omphale though it’s very detailed as a pianissimo extraction. This is truly one of Camille Saint-Saëns’ best kept secrets. Belle et fragile.
No detailing by Maestro Märkl is overlooked. If Camille Saint-Saëns gives you joy and a withdrawal into sophisticated elegance, this one’s for you...it certainly proved so for this reviewer.