About this Recording
8.573732 - SAINT-SAËNS, C.: Suite algérienne / Suite in D Major, Op. 49 / Suite in D Minor, Op. 16bis / Sérénade (Pastrana, Basque National Orchestra, Märkl)
English  French 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Orchestral Works

 

Born in Paris in 1835, Camille Saint-Saëns is one of the most extraordinary musical prodigies in the history of Western music. As a highly gifted pianist he made his concert debut at the age of ten, at which he announced to the audience that he would happily perform any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas as an encore. Having studied at the Paris Conservatoire, he followed a conventional path as a church organist, first at Saint-Merri, Paris, and later at La Madeleine, where he remained for some two decades and was praised for his improvisatory prowess. He was much in demand throughout Europe and the Americas, enjoying a successful career as a pianist and composer; however, the perception of Saint-Saëns the composer changed throughout his lifetime, which coincided with a period of revolutionary changes in the arts. During his youth, he championed such progressive figures as Wagner and Liszt, yet in his later years he revealed a much more conservative approach, rooted in tradition and reactionary to the innovative developments of Debussy, Stravinsky and others.

Saint-Saëns was a keen traveller. His ventures took him to Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, North and South America, England, Scandinavia, Russia and the Canary Islands, but Egypt and Algeria were to remain his preferred holiday venues. Indeed, the composer met his death in Algeria during what was to become his final stay in the country on 16 December 1921. Saint-Saëns’ personal experiences frequently translated into musical pieces, and a number of geographically themed works can be found among his output, such as the fantasy for piano and orchestra, Africa, the Piano Concerto No. 5 ‘Egyptian’, and the Suite algérienne.

The theme of the third movement of the Suite algérienne came to the composer during his initial visit to the country in 1873, appearing in the context of a singlemovement piece called Rêverie orientale. It was a great success at a charity concert in Paris on 7 June 1879, after which Saint-Saëns’ publisher, Auguste Durand, urged him to write more ‘picturesque’ pieces in a similar vein. The remaining three movements of the suite were composed in the seaside town of Boulogne-sur-Mer during the summer of 1880, and the whole suite was first performed in Paris on 19 December that year. As with the premiere of the Rêverie orientale—the initial seed of this work—the audience received the suite enthusiastically, and it was published the following year with a dedication to Albert Kopff, an ophthalmologist and pianist of Alsatian origin, who became a friend of Saint-Saëns during his stay in Algeria.

The suite is essentially a musical picture postcard travelogue of what was then a French colonial outpost in North Africa (hence the brazen confidence of the concluding Marche militaire française). The Prélude opens subtly and mysteriously, offering an initial view of Algiers. The traveller’s approach by sea is reflected in the undulating movement of the music, while other phrases indicate the vessel approaching the harbour and glimpses of new and exotic sights, as well as the mounting excitement of the noises of the city. The second movement, Rhapsodie mauresque (‘Moorish Rhapsody’), includes Saint-Saëns’ reworkings of Arab tunes he had heard, and the exotic flavour is heightened by the inclusion of a tambourine towards the end. Next comes Rêverie du soir (À Blidah) (‘An Evening Dream at Blidah’) (a city near Algiers), in which a gentle, romantic nocturne conveys all the lingering sensuality of the sounds and scents of the Arabian perfumed night. In the last movement, a French military march is worked up in elaborate style. A note in the score indicates that the composer not only emphasises his joy in viewing the French garrison, but also the security felt under its protection, expressed musically in the pompous rhythm of the march. This movement became a great favourite with military bands and Saint-Saëns himself recorded it in a piano arrangement. One of his biographers, James Harding, has suggested that its brisk, impatient, buoyant character is an unintentional self-portrait of the composer, who always felt the urge to have done with a work because the idea for another was already plaguing his restless brain.

In its original form, the Suite in D major, Op. 49 might be considered a remnant of a now defunct genre: music for harmonium. This instrument enjoyed great popularity in the 19th century, especially in France. The fact that Saint-Saëns originally composed the Suite in D major for harmonium in 1863 can be seen, therefore, as conforming to the fashion of the time, and as the instrument was often seen as a ‘substitute orchestra’, it was inevitable that in 1869 he prepared an orchestral version for the Concerts Litolff held at the Paris Opera. The suite is largely characterised by French Baroque dance movements, as found in the music of old French masters such as Rameau, but also (and most famously) in the solo violin, cello and keyboard suites and partitas of Bach. Beginning with a Prélude dominated by low, rustic-sounding drones, a stately Sarabande follows which, despite its Baroque inspiration, simultaneously seems to look ahead to the music of Elgar (not least the Serenade for Strings, 1892). This gives way to a lively Gavotte, a medium-paced dance in ABA form, whose middle ‘B’ section sees the return of a drone (this time in the upper strings), supporting a pair of duetting flutes. The remaining two movements leave the world of French Baroque dance music behind: after the calm introspection of the gently flowing Romance, the moto perpetuo drive of the Final rounds off this attractive suite with a scherzo-like finesse.

The Suite in D minor, Op. 16 was originally conceived for cello and piano, but was revised and orchestrated in 1919 (Saint-Saëns wrote two new movements for the orchestral version, the Gavotte and the Tarentelle). As with the Suite in D, Op. 49, it is structured around dance movements, though not all from France. The opening Prélude seems to inhabit the same idiom as Bach’s solo cello suites, while the following Sérénade has hints of Spain, as well as the famous Pavane of Gabriel Faure (1845–1924), one of Saint-Saëns’ pupils, in its identical scoring at the start—a solo flute and pizzicato strings opening this gentle waltz. The Gavotte is altogether more formal in nature, but it relaxes as echoes of Bach are heard again in the folk-like trio section, where the cello plays unaccompanied with a tonic drone in a doublestopped passage that recalls the second Gavotte from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6. The mood shifts for the reflective Romance: after several statements of the main theme, Saint-Saëns briefly borrows (perhaps inadvertently) the opening of the central Adagio from Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto and develops this, leading to a passage of greater intensity, after which the principal theme returns, a solo flute decorating the cello’s melody. The final Tarentelle sees Saint-Saëns indulging his playful side while at the same time demonstrating his contrapuntal skill (a final homage to Bach), and is finished off with a triumphant conclusion.

The Serenade in E flat major, Op. 15 is something of a Saint-Saëns rarity, no doubt due to its rather eccentric scoring of piano, organ/harmonium, violin and viola/cello. Composed in 1865, it is one of his earliest works to include an organ within a chamber ensemble, though it now exists in various transcriptions for orchestra, piano solo, piano four-hands and piano quartet. It is dedicated to Princess Mathilde Bonaparte Demidoff, who in 1860 had exempted Saint-Saëns from military service. The piece was first performed at a soiree held by the Prince of Hohenzollern on 7 January 1866, with the composer himself playing the organ. It was performed on two more occasions that year, with the third performance boasting an audience that included Berlioz, Gounod and Liszt.

Dominic Wells


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