Saint-Saens: Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 10 (CD review)

Also, String Quartet 1 in E minor, Op 112. Andrea Lucchesini; Quartetto di Cremona. Audite LC04480.

By Bill Heck

John Puccio recently reviewed a release (Italian Postcards) from the Quartetto di Cremona, and in that review he provided some background information on the ensemble. I won’t repeat it all here: feel free to read that review if you want more details (https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/12/italian-postcards-cd-review.html). What I will say is that the performance reviewed here does nothing to detract from their stellar reputation--read on for those details.

Piano Quintet
The Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 10 is an early, though not immature, work. It opens with a dramatic series of chords on the piano in a minor key that keeps trying to switch to major; that pattern repeats multiple times with variations as the strings join in. Things soon settle into a sunnier mood with quiet back-and-forth among the instruments. The figures used in development are relatively simple, but the interplay is enjoyable.

The second movement builds on a slow, quiet theme, which receives some lovely playing from all involved. The short third movement features long, dramatic runs up and down the scale, mostly on the piano, with the strings taking turns adding emphasis.
 
The fourth movement starts with a canon in the strings; the strings soon abandon that melody, but the piano picks it up briefly before launching a new theme, which is in turn echoed by the strings. The initial canon returns in the strings, only to be recycled multiple times. The first and second themes appear alternately with variations until the pace quickens, taking us to the end of the movement and the work.

The playing here is nuanced and superbly executed. Of particular note is the energy that the Quartetto brings to the work: in their hands, the music is dramatic, although not overly so. They clearly find the work worth the effort of playing well.

Although the quintet is a relatively youthful work, it really is quite enjoyable. Thus, I was surprised to find only a few other recordings. (To avoid confusion, I should note that there are two later Piano Quartets and two Piano Trios, all of which seem to have been more frequently recorded than the Quintet.) Thus, this well-played version is a welcome addition to the catalog.

String Quartet No. 1
While the String Quartet 1 in E minor, Op. 112 was Saint-Saens' first in that genre, it can hardly be called an early work, as the composer was 64 years old at the time of its composition. Compared to the piano quintet, the quartet is noticeably more mature and complex, but still quite accessible.

The music starts out with a single note held on the violin and harmonized by the viola, twice repeated, as if a plaintive cry. The work then breaks into a minor key melody in a loping rhythm, again halting for a sustained, repeated note. The instruments answer each other with ascending and descending scales, and swap melodies, sliding back and forth between major and minor keys as if trying to bring light to a gloomy picture. After further development, the scales return, eventually bringing the listener to an emotionally ambiguous conclusion.

The second movement begins with a simple, quick four-note figure repeated over and over as it is handed back and forth between the instruments. The players really dig in, and the result is almost frantic, an effect that one presumes was just what Saint-Saens was going for. The music calms down a bit as the movement continues, only to return with quick nervous energy to those four-note figures. Again, the music demands energy, and the Quartetto supplies it, keeping the sense of drama going until Saint-Saens has them play a few final notes more slowly and quietly, as if exhausted by their labors.

The third movement could hardly be more different, beginning slowly with a beautiful, winding melody carried by the violin. The intertwining voices of the instruments reminds me of nothing so much as the intertwining voices that one might hear in an operatic duet by, say, Puccini. The playing in this movement is the only one that gives me slight pause: perhaps that Quartetto is a little too dynamic, giving the lovely chant-like sound almost a pulsing quality. That’s a quibble, though, that occurred to me only on repeated hearing when I was looking for issues. Listeners who are just relaxing rather than reviewing should be quite satisfied.

Entering the finale, the music takes a breath and then launches into another rhythmically complex and passionate, even agitated, development that returns several phrases from the first movement. Saint-Saens again whips up the pace toward the finish line, with the music ending as it began in a minor key. Again, the Quartetto is fully up to the task, the music crackling with energy to the end.

All in all, I found this work quite enjoyable and rewarding, thoroughly romantic and spirited, but with enough musical interest to hold attention.

There are plenty of performances of this work out there, so let me pick just a couple for comparison. The Quatuor Girard plays nicely, although slightly less energetically and dynamically than the Cremona crew. To my ears, though, they are sabotaged by an over-reverberant recording that obscures some of the passage work, and sound that tends to collapse onto the speakers in the more dynamic passages. The Fine Arts Quartet plays well and offers both the first and second quartets on a Naxos disk for those who crave completeness. Their account of the first is not so highly strung as that that of the Cremona players; for example, the Quartetto plays the second movement much faster than the Fine Arts group, at the same time really digging in to their instruments, so much so that returning from the Naxos disk to this one gives the impression of a completely different work. To my ears, the Quartetto di Cremona makes the music more exciting – even the word “spooky” comes to mind at points in the second movement – and more interesting.

I suspect that some listeners will find this performance a little too much, a little too dramatic. For my money, though, the intensity brought by the Quartetto di Cremona is just what’s needed for the music here.

Conclusion
Both performances in this release are enhanced by the recorded sound, which is quite clear and places the instruments in believable space, with no trace of harshness. Some room reverberation is retained, but with the music emerging from an absolutely silent background. If pressed for some negative, I might quibble that the sound of the cello displays the slightest trace of thinness, but a mere quibble and hardly can detract from the overall quality of the recording.

BH

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa