The Septet is probably Saint-Saens' most popular chamber work, so I tend to take it for granted. But listening to it again in the Nash's excellent performance, I'm struck by how wonderfully successful a work it is. Like Grieg's "Holberg Suite," it's a loving evocation of 18th-century music by an echt-Romantic composer. But unlike Grieg, Saint-Saens had a strong classical bent to his music making. When Gounod called Saint-Saens "the Beethoven of France," he gave cognizance to this fact; in an era when French composers spent most of their time trying to make it big in the opera world, Saint-Saens was a consummate master of all forms of music: orchestral, chamber, choral, and of course opera.
But back to that Septet. More than just a very attractive oddity, it contains one of Saint-Saens' most deeply felt slow movements and a minuet that is about as close to musical perfection as a composer can get whose name isn't Mozart!
In plain fact, this collection should be a reminder of just how much truly fine chamber music Saint-Saens crafted in his long life. Highpoints of the set are the Piano Quartet, one of the finest in the repertoire, and the Sonatas for Oboe, Clarinet, and Bassoon written in the last year of the composer's life. Gentle and subdued as they are, autumnal works in the manner of Brahms's late chamber works, they still manage to gently exploit the comic potential of the clarinet and the bassoon. My favorite is the Clarinet Sonata, with its near-tragic slow movement and last movement in which the players seem to briefly lose their way harmonically in one recurring episode. Is this Saint-Saens' wry commentary on modern music circa 1920? Typical of Saint-Saens, the sonata is cyclic in nature, the opening allegretto returning at the very end of the sonata in the manner of a rondo--a rondo that covers four movements! A wonderful touch.
The Piano Quartet is another cyclic work; themes from the first and second movements return in the triumphant finale. That second movement, by the way, is one of Saint-Saens' most striking; highly contrapuntal, it proceeds at a processional pace that's haunting in its relentlessness.
The works aren't equally inspired of course. The precocious Tarentelle is derailed by a cloying Mendelssohn-meets-French-music-hall middle section, while the early Quintet starts out like a house afire only to be squelched, as is too often the case in Saint-Saens, by a less-than-sterling finale, with a superb melody that the composer doesn't quite know how to handle. But there are many more hits than misses among the works represented here.
It is a mark of the excellence of the performances by the Nash Ensemble that pieces I've taken for granted come up sounding fresh, especially the Caprice for flute, oboe, clarinet, and piano. A potpourri for sure, but a very gracious and beautifully crafted one. All it requires is lovely, assured playing such as we have here. Special praise is due Ian Brown, who is front and center in all these works, playing Saint-Saens' often-demanding piano parts with aplomb and with obvious relish.
Henry Wood Hall in London must be a great recording venue; at least the Hyperion engineers produce excellent results there. The sense of hall is palpable, and every instrument sounds natural and very "present." This package is two hours of real pleasure for chamber music lovers.