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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Quartet in B flat major (1875) [31:45]
Barcarolle in F major (1897) [9:09]
Piano Quintet in A minor (1854-55) [30:08]
Cristina Ortiz (piano)
Fine Arts Quartet
rec. Concert Hall, Performing Arts Centre, Purchase College, State University of New York, Purchase NY, 26-29 March 2012
NAXOS 8.572904 [71:02] 

My colleague Ian Lace already named this album Recording of the Month and praised the “charm[ing]” and “gorgeously evocative” chamber music of Camille Saint-Saëns. It’s showcased here but hard to find elsewhere. I don’t feel very creative agreeing with him on every point, but I do. The motion is seconded: Saint-Saëns’ chamber music is unjustifiably overlooked, a source of great pleasure, and we should be glad that such fine performers are now its champions.
 
This is the Fine Arts Quartet’s second Saint-Saëns album, after his string quartets, which I also enjoyed, but maybe not this much. The early piano quintet, written when the composer was escaping his teenage years, is ambitious but wholly enjoyable, with evocations of Mendelssohn. There’s a tune in the first movement that sounds coincidentally like the opening of the later piano quintet by Dvorák. The andante, with slightly greater harmonic daring and a direct tie to the scherzo, is to me the highlight.
 
The late piano quartet, the composer’s second - a companion CD featuring the first must be in the offing? - is truly superb in a romantic sort of way, beauty its aim and its strength. The work’s not untroubled by drama, but the composer’s French side shows through, with writing reminiscent of Fauré and an epic finale. Although the work is in B flat, every movement but the first starts in a minor key. The barcarolle is as good as Ian Lace said it was: a gentle rocking motion in the viola and cello joined by evocative piano writing and some of the big tunes this composer for which is both great and under-appreciated.
 
The Fine Arts Quartet is one of the best ensembles around at creating a luxurious romantic atmosphere, with all four players capable of making their instruments sing, sing, sing. To this full-bodied quartet add the able pianism of Cristina Ortiz, a pairing which has already proved delightful in Fauré and Franck, and satisfaction is basically guaranteed. Excellent sound makes this a treat for all those who enjoy the byways of the romantic era.
 
Brian Reinhart 

See also review by Ian Lace (April 2013 Recording of the Month)