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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Piano Quartet in B flat major, op. 41 (1875) [30:56]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Piano Quartet in A major, op. 30 (1897) [36:26]
Schubert Ensemble (William Howard (piano), Simon Blendis (violin), Douglas Paterson (viola), Jane Salmon (cello))
rec. March 2016, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download
CHANDOS CHAN10914 [67:36]

Neither of these quite delicious works has a strong presence in the catalogue, despite the prominence of Saint-SaŽns in particular. While the two composers are a generation apart in age, and rather different in their musical styles, the pairing, which has been made at least twice before (review), makes sense and works well. It allows us to hear the evolution in French chamber music as the fin de siŤcle approached and the impressionistic atmosphere of Faurť and Debussy became influential. The contrast between the elegant Saint-SaŽns and the passionate Chausson means a good range of moods across the disc.

Saint-SaŽns’ chamber music doesn’t receive its due recognition, perhaps because it is less showy than his popular pieces. Here we have a work of real quality from his maturity, written the year after Danse macabre, the same year as his fourth piano concerto and two years before Samson et Dalila. The work is elegant, even a little restrained, with a cyclic structure: the themes from the opening gentle Allegretto, one of them as beautiful as he ever wrote, and the second movement Andante return in the grand Finale. Remarkably, it has fewer than ten recordings, but that is not to say this new release has little competition. One of the few recent recordings, from Naxos, was highly regarded by our reviewers, and there is a double CD of his chamber works on Hyperion by the always reliable Nash Ensemble (review). Both were awarded Recording of the Month status here. I would rate this performance as equal to the Naxos – I haven’t heard the Hyperion – and it may be that the couplings become part of the decision process.

That Chausson’s quartet has a small number of recordings is less surprising, given his lesser stature. Written eighteen months before his sad death from a cycling accident, it is, if anything, even finer than the Saint-SaŽns. It is a much more intense and passionate work, the slow second movement a real highlight. There is an underlying melancholia throughout, only really being dispelled towards the end of the work. This is the first time I’d heard the work, and I feel it is worthy of the label of “minor masterpiece”.

The Schubert Ensemble, established in 1983, has made a number of recordings for Chandos - for example, Enescu quartets ~ Enescu trio and quintet ~ Vaughan Williams quintet - and all have been well received. The quality of these performances provides further evidence of a real affinity with music of this era. The production values are standard for this label, the Potton Hall acoustic suiting the richness of Chausson especially.

Even if you have recordings of these works, you should strongly consider adding this fine release to your collection.

David Barker



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