Review: Saint-Saëns – Cello Concertos etc.

Who could possibly resist this collection? With cellist Truls Mørk’s commanding account of the Cello Concertos, a scintillating The Carnival of the Animals and Louis Lortie’s scene-stealing turn in the fantasy Africa, this album is a sure-fire winner.

Saint-Saëns once remarked “The artist who does not feel completely satisfied by elegant lines, by harmonious colours, and by a beautiful succession of chords does not understand the art of music”. He did not wear his heart on his sleeve like other composers of the Romantic period nor was he a revolutionary or iconoclast. But he did elevate sophistication and elegance to new heights and these gifts are on full display in the works in this album.

The First Cello Concerto is one of his most deservedly popular pieces and was hailed as a masterpiece on its first performance. Conceived as a single movement work, it bristles with energy and virtuosity in the outer sections, pausing in the central section for an exquisite minuet of immense charm. The Second Cello Concerto is less performed (perhaps because of the demanding cello part) but it deserves a wider hearing as it contains deeply felt lyrical passages. Truls Mørk is a spirited advocate for both works and his playing with the Bergen Philharmonic under Neeme Järvi is spellbinding.

Saint-Saëns’ perennially popular The Carnival of the Animals needs no introduction. With the Canadian pianists Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier, this version for orchestra is infectious good fun and packed with many delights. I don’t think I’ve heard such an effective evocation of the splashing and swirling of water as here in Aquarium where a glass harmonica is also used to ghostly effect. The braying of donkeys in Personnages à longues Oreilles is given a different character with each screech from the violins; similarly the sound of the cuckoo in Le coucou au fond des bois seems to float around the orchestra. Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier are on cracking form with Pianistes although to play this badly (as indicated) they must be very good pianists indeed! After Le cygne, beautifully played by Mørk, everyone joins in the boisterous carnival atmosphere for the Finale, with Neeme Järvi holding everything together to produce an exuberant finish.

The two rarely performed stocking fillers on the album are the fantasy Africa and the Valse-Caprice (“Wedding cake”). No mere pieces of fluff, these glittering pieces round off the album superbly. Louis Lortie is on dazzling form; with the fantasy Africa, an infectious pot-pourri of themes (including a Tunisian folk tune), he turns in a performance to bring the house down.

These superb performances have a vivid recorded sound and the album contains generous and informative notes on the music.

Performance: 5 stars
Recording: 4 stars

Artists:  Truls Mørk (cello) , Louis Lortie , Hélène Mercier (piano), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Neeme Järvi (conductor).  Chandos CHSA5162 (2016)

Kevin Painting

Published 28 March 2016 on primephonic.