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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Musique de chambre avec vents (Chamber music for winds)
Bassoon Sonata in G major, Op. 168 (1921) [12:11]
Clarinet Sonata in E flat major, Op. 167 (1921) [15:37]
Oboe Sonata in D major, Op. 166 (1921) [15:13]
Romance in F major for horn and piano, Op. 36 (1874) [4:39]
Cavatine in D major for trombone and piano, Op. 144 (1915) [4:48]
Septet in E major for trumpet, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass and piano, Op. 65* (1880/81) [16:30]
Les solistes de l'Orchestre de Paris et de l'Opéra de Paris (Maurice Allard (bassoon), Maurice Bourgue (oboe), Gilbert Coursier (horn), Roger Delmotte (trumpet) Maurice Gabai (clarinet), Jacques Toulon (trombone)), Annie d’Arco (piano), Jeanne Marie Darré (piano)*, Gaston Logerot (double bass), Quatuor Pascal
rec. 1976 and June 1957 (Op.65) Paris, France
INDÉSENS RECORDS INDE019 [65:22]

The Indésens label has now been absorbed into the more familiar Calliope. They present here six chamber works for winds composed over a near fifty year period between 1874 and 1921. The performers are named as soloists from the Orchestre de Paris, the Paris Opera and Quatuor Pascal. We are not told if the ensemble Quatuor Pascal are members of those two Paris orchestras. The booklet notes provide very little information about the origins of the recordings. We are informed that they were recorded in Paris, five of them 1976 and the Septet, much earlier in 1957.
 
The multi-talented Saint-Saëns planned to write a sonata for each of the wind instruments of the orchestra but fell short. The three wind sonatas here, for bassoon, clarinet and oboe all composed in 1921, have proved to be the most enduring works in the composer’s chamber music output.
 
The Bassoon Sonata in G major, Op. 168 was a composition for Léon Letellier, principal bassoon of the Opéra and the Société des Concerts. Despite some buoyant and agreeable playing in the quicker movements Maurice Allard’s bassoon is recorded very closely and is over-bright producing a quite disagreeable sound. The piano of Annie d’Arco is slightly less close but does emit a rather unpleasant woody tone.
 
The Clarinet Sonata in E flat major, Op. 167 bears a dedication to Auguste Perier who was renowned as an excellent player with a highly assured technique. Maurice Gabai’s clarinet and Annie d’Arco’s piano have a slightly better balance and the sound is more acceptable than good. Generally I enjoyed the playing especially the vibrant Allegro animato. In the dark funereal tones of the Lento the glaring clarinet sound becomes a touch uncomfortable. At one point the pace sags - almost coming to a dead stop.
 
The magnificent Oboe Sonata in D major, Op. 166 is dedicated to Louis Bas, a distinguished oboe virtuoso of the day. I love the highly attractive melody that opens the first movement Andantino. Maurice Bourgue’s very reedy oboe is close but acceptably caught but d’Arco’s piano is a touch too forward. In the Allegro animato the close oboe sounds commanding yet in the louder passages feels oppressively forward. The closing Molto Allegro is lively and playful with the oboe much too reedy for my taste and the close piano uncomfortably loud. 
The Romance was a favoured medium for Saint-Saëns who wrote a number of them for various instrumental combinations. The earliest work here, the Romance in F major for horn and piano, from 1874 was dedicated to the famous horn player Henri Garigue. This work has also been arranged for cello and piano with orchestral editions also available. An undemanding score, its light and very attractive melody has been described as suitable for the Parisian salon.It is just possible to hear the quality of the playing through the testing sound. The music is affectionately handled by Gilbert Coursier and Annie d’Arco. Again the horn placed is taxingly close, is very bright, and uncomfortably strident in the forte passages
 
The Cavatine in D major for trombone and piano was written in 1915 whilst on board the SS Rochambeau on a return voyage to Europe from the USA. The attractive lyricism of the Cavatine is hampered by Jacques Toulon’s trombone. There is a rasp to his sound and d’Arco is stompy. The effect is noisy and oppressive.
 
The Septet in E major for trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, double bass and piano dates from 1880/81. It was written for Émile Lemoine, founder of the Parisian music society called La Trompette (The Trumpet). Through the poor sound quality I was just able to discern the merits of committed and enthusiastic playing from the Quatuor Pascal joined by pianist Jeanne Marie Darré (who famously recorded all the Saint-Saens piano concerts for Pathé-Marconi), double bassist Gaston Logerot and trumpeter Roger Delmotte. This recording is nearly twenty years older than the other five works and the quality is especially inadequate. The foggy sonics lack depth, suffer from an uneven balance and are generally too closely recorded. I find Roger Delmotte’s sour trumpet off-putting, the strings are somewhat vinegary and Jeanne Marie Darré’s slightly distant piano feels clunky - like a pub piano. All in all, to my ears, it was an awful racket.
 
When I am able to concentrate sufficiently to listen through the problematic sound I find the playing from the various Paris orchestral soloists on this release generally characterful, skilled and really enthusiastic. Without any real historic importance that I could discern I’m puzzled why any discerning record label would release a disc with such disagreeable sonics that present the players in such a poor light.
 
In 2005 the Nash Ensemble featured in a marvellously played and recorded double set of eight Saint-Saëns chamber music works: Bassoon Sonata, Op. 168; Clarinet Sonata, Op. 167; Oboe Sonata, Op. 166 (1921); Septet, Op. 65; Tarentelle, Op 6; Piano Quartet, Op. 41; Piano Quintet, Op. 14; Caprice sur des airs danois et russes, Op. 79. These were recorded in 2004 at the Henry Wood Hall, London and were issued on Hyperion CDA67431/2. The inclusion of the substantial Piano Quartet, Op. 41 and Piano Quintet, Op. 14 and consistently glorious and elegant playing make it a clear first choice in this repertoire. Another excellent and well recorded alternative comes from the Ensemble Villa Musica on MDG Gold. They offer the Bassoon Sonata, Op. 168; Clarinet Sonata, Op. 167; Oboe Sonata, Op. 166 together with the Romance for Flute and Piano in D flat major, Op. 37 and the Caprice sur des airs danois et russes, for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet and Piano, Op. 79. Recorded in 1991 at Furstliche Reitbahn, Bad Arolsen, this single disc is on Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG 304 0395-2. A warmer sound quality smiles down on and through these satisfying Hyperion and MDG versions.
 
Michael Cookson 

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