IT IS amazing to think that Camille Saint-Saens was born seven years before Mendelssohn wrote his Scottish Symphony, and died six years after Berg completed his Three Orchestral Pieces. Talk about spanning the generations. Saint-Saens was a consummate stylist whose charm, tunefulness and aristocratic invention enriched a large and varied output. Take the First Cello Concerto of 1872, the second movement, in which a long-breathed melody floats across a delicately pointed strings accompaniment, and lyrical ideas sing from virtually every line. Cellists love it, but of recent recordings, none that I have heard quite matches the finesse and tonal lustre of Mischa Maisky with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Maisky's affectionate yet brilliant rendition sits happily among other Saint-Saens cello works: the dashing First Cello Sonata, the rarely heard Suite, Op 16, and three miniatures: Romance in F major, Allegro appassionato and, of course, The Swan. Maisky has surely never made a better record. Beethoven was a major influence on Saint-Saens, and Beethoven's Op 9 String Trios are infused with an abundance of wit and memorable melody. They are also easy to listen to, especially when granted the sort of artful gentility that the Leopold String Trio brings to them. The blend of voices is exquisite, the faster music is played with unassuming virtuosity and the Trio's mastery of rubato seems wholly natural. A companion CD couples the Op 3 and Op 8 trios. Between them, they offer the most sensitive reportage that these works have enjoyed since the advent of digital recording.
As to recorded opera, there is no real substitute for the bustle of live stage action, the thud of boots on boards, lightning vocal exchanges, dares, risks, even occasional misfires. Naxos have been trawling the New York Met's archive, and Austrian Radio's vast storehouse of past operatic productions has already yielded major treasures to Koch, Orfeo, Deutsche Grammophon and EMI. Now RCA are muscling in on the act with their new "Wiener Staatsoper Live" series. Perhaps the most interesting release so far is a 1969 stereo recording of Smetana's Dalibor, in which theatrical echoes of Fidelio (jailed hero, dungeon scene, heroine disguised as a man) and musical reminiscences of Wagner, Liszt and Schumann seem stronger for being paraded in German. There's also a chance to hear sisters Leonie and Lotte Rysanek vie for vocal supremacy (Act 1, scene 6) as well as some impressive acting from Ludovico Spiess (Dalibor) and Eberhard Wachter (King of Bohemia). Josef Krips presides over a score that sings, dances and proudly protests, pressing forwards only as the drama intensifies.
Saint-Saens/Maisky: DG 457 599-2 (full price)
Beethoven/Leopold String Trio: Hyperion CDA67254 (full price)
Smetana/Krips: RCA 74321 57735 2 (2 discs, mid price)