By Bill Heck
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 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.
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.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: