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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Music for violin and piano - Volume I
Violin Sonata No 1 in D minor, Op. 75 [23:34]
Berceuse, Op. 38 [5:10]
Elégie, Op. 160 [4:41]
Elégie, Op. 143 [5:13]
Sarabande et Rigaudon, Op. 93 [8:10]
Romance, Op. 37 [6:14]
L’air de la pendule [1:05]
Triptyque, Op. 136 [13:26]
Fanny Clamagirand (violin); Vanya Cohen (piano)
rec. 13-15 June 2011, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
NAXOS 8.572750 [67:33]

With all the compositional trends of the past century, Camille Saint-Saëns’ popularity has wavered, and his esteem among musicologists has waned. His tuneful craftsmanship, and what you might call a blend of French elegance and emotion with Germanic formal rigor, saw him “left behind” even in his own time, as Debussy and Ravel passed him by. Even so, Saint-Saëns is still exceptional at what he does, and I’m thankful for the recent advocacy by Naxos of the composer’s chamber music. First we got the late woodwind sonatas, then the string quartets and a piano quintet (April 2013 Recording of the Month), and now the first volume of his complete violin music.
The music’s almost all first-rate. The first Violin Sonata, in D minor, is concise and carefully built, with no dead spots. Like the Organ Symphony, each set of two movements is paired and proceeds continuously. The material’s all up to the standard you’d expect from the violin concertos. At the other end of the CD is Triptyque, a very late piece in three movements which, in its central “Vision congolaise”, brings us the kind of grin-inducing exoticism which one also finds in the “Egyptian” piano concerto.
In between we have a lot of shorter works, from the unpublished L’air de la pendule, a petite melody inscribed on a clock as a gift to the King of Belgium, to two late and wonderful elegies. Fear not: the programming of a berceuse and two elegies all in a row does not result in a dull moment, unless you’re the kind of person who also can’t listen to more than three Chopin nocturnes. And the Romance in D flat, originally written for flute and orchestra, doesn’t sound like an arrangement; the kind of gently flowing accompaniment that underpins the “Swan” is paired with a melody that’s only less memorable because almost every melody is less memorable than the swan’s.
This is slated to be the first traversal of Saint-Saëns’ violin music since Philippe Graffin recorded a couple discs on Hyperion and Helios over a decade ago. Luckily for Naxos - and for us - Fanny Clamagirand is an excellent young violinist whose sweet tone, gentle vibrato, and gift for lyrical expression make her ideal for this romantic repertoire. Vanya Cohen’s accompaniments shine, too, and highlight the inventive ways that Saint-Saëns uses his main instrument. The intimate sound, featuring a beautifully-rendered violin, only seals the deal. If you liked Fanny Clamagirand’s excellent Saint-Saëns concertos album - my colleague Byzantion agrees she’s “ideal for this kind of music” - this is a natural progression; if not, grab them both.
Brian Reinhart