The cellist Steven Isserlis is doing London a favour with his Saint-Saëns concerts, even though he has some funny ideas.
The cellist Steven Isserlis is doing London a favour with his Saint-Saëns concerts, even though he has some funny ideas. What does he mean when he maintains that there's no Saint-Saëns style? It was bursting out of the first two events: nervous energy meets a shy but sensual feel for melody. There were typical Saint-Saëns rhythms, driven by little groups of rapid notes, and typical Saint-Saëns tunes, full of languid leaning notes as if punctuated by sharp intakes of breath at the sight of wondrous beauty.
Some good choices of repertoire did well by a strong core of performers. The point about pieces like the endlessly resourceful Beethoven Variations for two pianos (Simon Crawford-Phillips, Philip Moore) or the laconic Clarinet Sonata (Julian Bliss) is that they are much enjoyed by musicians, but usually presented in programmes as the sandwich around the meat. This time the opening-night audience had to consider for its own sake the former's skills and quietly bubbling humour, all the way to its emphatic final quote of the end of the same Beethoven sonata, and the latter's distilled calm and almost shocking short cuts.
The violinist Joshua Bell produced his usual aplomb for the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, in a perverse arrangement by Bizet that put the pianist's right wrist under severe strain, though he sounded as if he were sight-reading the lesser-known Berceuse. The Carnival of the Animals was nearly sabotaged by the faded, add-on verses of Ogden Nash, which the audience found less and less funny - the two big laughs were for extra lines at the expense of the performers.
The next night at the Barbican, with the English Chamber Orchestra, the treat was La Muse et le Poete, a hybrid between mini-concerto and operatic scene, with violin and cello instead of singers. Saint-Saëns produced one of his freest-flowing forms and most intimate instrumental dialogues, like a Platonic love duet, which Bell and Isserlis delivered with sensitivity and sometimes intense drama. Une Nuit a Lisbonne, with its haunting sinuous melody, made a persuasive starter. The two most familiar Saint-Saëns string concertos were high points, Isserlis producing a memorable light touch and fine-drawn tone, and Bell, in his more extrovert work, also making much of the solo line's frequent ascents to moments of quiet stillness.
After this, the Symphony No 2 was a downer - an early piece with about one-and-a-half captivating movements, a dashing finale and a good deal of stodge which the energy and grace of Jean-Luc Tingaud's conducting couldn't disguise. This was a missed opportunity - since the rest of the festival is about chamber and vocal music - to present Saint-Saëns as a composer of weight, and left you feeling he was still being slightly patronised. Either of the last two piano concertos, the grand Fourth or the quirky Fifth, would have done the job handsomely and given the evening an end it deserved.
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