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William Bender
American Record Guide, May 2012

With Saint-Saens, the atmosphere is the thing. The melodic writing is deep and appealing, and his harmonies rich and brilliantly colored. As significant as anything is the vibrant string tone he seems able to draw from every twist and turn he gives his players. It seems certain that there is nothing this composer could not do.

This recording is the work of one of our oldest and finest quartets, the Fine Arts, which with Naxos’s help has established a small cottage industry devoted to outstanding music we might otherwise not have heard. The production values are notable. It is consistently remarkable the way Saint-Saens harmonizes his melodic line, and it is almost as impressive the way Naxos makes sure we hear it. © 2012 American Record Guide Read complete review on American Record Guide online

Art for Art’s Sake, January 2012

His [Saint-Saëns’] chamber music is elegant and refined, among the best of the late romantic period…For this post I have picked a Naxos recording of his beautiful and virtually unknown string quartets, composed in 1899 and 1918. Excellent playing by the Fine Arts Quartet. Very rewarding music, highly recommended. © Art for Art’s Sake

Peter Grahame Woolf
Musical Pointers, November 2011

Saint-Saens’ two string quartets…championed by a venerable American quartet which has been active touring and recording for over half a century, three of its members with them for nearly thirty years…Definitely well worth hearing, and for quartets wanting to extend their repertoires to consider taking up. © Musical Pointers

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, September 2011

Saint-Saëns came to the string quartet late in life, at least by the measure of most composers’ life spans—he was 64 when he wrote his first quartet in 1899 and 83 when he wrote his second in 1918—so one might wonder if by the turn of the century he wasn’t a spent force, having already written most, if not all, of the major works by which he is known. But there are exceptions—flashes of his former self—in the Second Cello Concerto (1902) and the Second Cello Sonata (1905), in the Cinq poèmes de Ronsard (1907–21), and surely in the final triptych of wind sonatas (1921). In the last 20 years of his life, Saint-Saëns actually wrote a great deal, but much of it—songs, choral pieces, incidental music, dramatic scenas, and a miscellany of smaller instrumental and chamber works—has not been recorded.

Other than his admiration for violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, to whom the first quartet is dedicated, it’s hard to know what prompted Saint-Saëns to suddenly decide he needed to add his two cents to the string quartet literature. He’d come this far without feeling any particular urge to grace the medium with a work of his own, so why now?

The booklet note tantalizingly suggests a connection to Vincent d’Indy, who author Keith Anderson speculates may have expressed some interest in a classically styled string quartet by Saint-Saëns to use as a model of cyclic form in his composition class. In the end, however, Anderson claims d’Indy rejected the idea in favor of the far less than classically styled quartet written 10 years earlier by his teacher, César Franck. That Saint-Saëns openly despised Franck, d’Indy, and the whole Schola Cantorum circle, and that no doubt the feelings on the other side were mutual, makes such a scenario seem improbable.

Saint-Saëns was incapable of writing anything that sounded less than professionally polished and gratifying to the ear, but considering the history of the string quartet up to the time he addressed it in 1899, the E-Minor work strikes this listener as much ado about very little, a tornado in a thimble. It was obviously written with Ysaÿe in mind, for the first violin part dominates with virtuosic passagework more appropriate for a concerto titled “in modo meshugante.” The first movement, almost 12 minutes in duration, is practically a nonstop, hold-on-to-your-seat ride in a fast and furious machine, and it’s not only the first violin that gets a workout. This may partially explain why more ensembles haven’t taken up the piece—too much sweat, too little payback. The antecedent for this type of string quartet writing may be the quatuors brilliants of Louis Spohr.

The scherzo-like second movement continues in the whirling Dervish-like vein for another six and a half minutes. Not until the third movement does Saint-Saëns provide a sense of real repose in a Molto adagio strongly reminiscent of the parallel movement in Beethoven’s op. 135. But the last movement, in unrelieved minor mode, returns to the ranting and raving of the first movement. One half-expects the musicians to drop dead after the final chord, but the members of the Fine Arts Quartet live on to give us the composer’s second effort in the medium.

The G-Major Quartet finds Saint-Saëns in lighter mood and less garrulous, the work being in three movements instead of four. The first movement, which the composer described as representing youth, has a drawing-room, classical refinement to it that recalls in spirit, if not in letter, the style of Mozart. Always cautious about exposing his private emotions in his music, Saint-Saëns called the slow movement of the quartet “deadly dull, as an Adagio should be,” masking what he really felt when earlier he’d said that if the first movement was “youth” the second movement was the saddest thing of all, “the loss of it.” The quartet concludes with a relatively lighthearted romp that conceals a good deal of compositional sophistication, including a neatly worked-out fugal episode.

Right up to the bitter end, Saint-Saëns maintained his classical-romantic bonafides. To listen to the second of these two quartets, you would never know that Debussy had happened or that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had premiered on Saint-Saëns’s home turf. But then the composer’s history as a serial hater of everyone and everything “new” in music is well known. Sometimes it seems that the only one he didn’t hate was Dalila, his French poodle, so he couldn’t have been all bad.

Founded in 1946, the Fine Arts Quartet is one of America’s longest-surviving chamber ensembles. In 33:2, I gave a rave recommendation to the group’s Naxos recording of Fauré’s two piano quintets in which they were joined by pianist Cristina Ortiz, a rave, by the way, which Corleonis frowned upon three issues later in his review of the Fine Arts’ performance of Franck’s string quartet and piano quintet.

While I respect Corleonis’s opinions and occasionally even quote him, I stand by my review of the Fine Arts’ Fauré and I offer an equally strong endorsement of the ensemble’s new Saint-Saëns CD. Competing versions, as noted at the outset, are few, and the only other one I’ve known previously is that by the Viotti String Quartet on an Apex disc. Comparing the two, the Fine Arts Quartet emerges as the more technically secure and poised, especially in the extremely taxing E-Minor Quartet, and the sound of the ensemble as it’s captured by Naxos is full and vibrant. Saint-Saëns’s string quartets are not going to alter opinions of the composer for good or for ill. But I will admit, they’re kind of fun to listen to, especially the wild First Quartet, and for now at least, I personally know of no other ensemble that plays them better than the Fine Arts Quartet.

Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, August 2011

Camille Saint-Saëns’ string quartets are not the chirpy, cheery, tune-laden gems we would expect from the composer. They are not as instantly attractive and romantic as the concertos, nor as easily accessible a combination of formal simplicity and autumnal sorrow as the late woodwind sonatas (available on a superb recent Naxos disc). If anything by Saint-Saëns can be honestly called challenging, it is these two string quartets. But the rewards are well worth your listening time.

The first quartet, in E minor, opens with a melancholy tune which is spun out of a single high E on the first violin, slowly repeated; all of this is done with mutes. The mutes stay on for quite a bit of the allegro proper, though the secondary material offers more vigor and contrapuntal detail. There is a really compelling drama in this first movement, but until the dramatic finish it is often understated and repeated listens really do help fully size up the importance of Saint-Saëns’ thinking here. The scherzo has a short, good tune for a hook, and some formidable licks by violin and viola; it is also capable of a near-Brahmsian sternness, and the trio is a fugue. The slow movement provides a major-key respite, but it doesn’t go in for easy sentimentality either, and the finale doesn’t let up. This is a dark, deeply introspective piece which should surprise anybody who thinks Saint-Saëns is a lightweight; the quartet, violinist Ralph Evans has said in an interview, will “change minds in a hurry.” Indeed.

The second string quartet, in G, is cheerier but not much closer to the stereotype we have of Saint-Saëns. It sounds more Russian than French, especially the leaping tune which begins the first movement and the somber hymn-like tune which appears in the adagio; speaking of which, the molto adagio is more overtly pretty here than in the first quartet, and spiked with a faster central section, the transition out of which (and through to the end of the movement) is a very fine piece of lyrical writing. The finale provides a sober but reassuring finish to the work, founded on a rather exotic tune in fifths.

The Fine Arts Quartet are up to their usual impressive standards: this is an ensemble with a rich, velvety, unabashedly romantic sound, and often seems incapable of being anything other than achingly beautiful. In the last two minutes of the Second Quartet’s adagio they are breathtaking. I’d listen to them play nearly anything from this time period, and they validate that trust here. The recorded sound (intriguingly, the sessions were in a monastery library) is intimate, warm, and ideally suited to the quartet’s unique style; the notes are by the ubiquitous Keith Anderson, and the look at an unexplored side of Saint-Saëns, by a quartet of this caliber, is not to be missed.

Finally it seems appropriate to note that Wolfgang Laufer, the superb cellist who was a member of the Fine Arts Quartet since 1979, died on 8 June this year, soon after the release of this disc and the recording of two more Naxos albums (Schumann and Kreisler). He was one of three Fine Arts players—along with the two violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Boico—who had been in the quartet together for over thirty years. His, then, will be a hard chair to replace. Let us hope that the Fine Arts Quartet’s unmistakable sound will live on.

William Dart
The New Zealand Herald, July 2011

The Fine Arts Quartet’s new recording of the Saint-Saens String Quartets comes up with more revelations…Ardent performances demand a reappraisal of an underestimated composer. © The New Zealand Herald

Robert Johnson
Radio New Zealand, July 2011

The Fine Arts Quartet is a distinguished ensemble: its current line-up is very impressive, and they make an extremely convincing case for these two little-known quartets. Recorded in the Netherlands, this disc is beautifully engineered and can be unconditionally recommended to anyone with a taste for 19th-century chamber music. © Radio New Zealand

Terry Robbins
The WholeNote, July 2011

Naxos has issued a fascinating CD of Saint-Saëns String Quartets (8.572454) played by the Fine Arts Quartet. Saint-Saëns was born ten years before the premiere of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and died eight years after the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but such radical change was never reflected in his music. The quartets are both late works—the E minor Op.112 from 1899 and the G major Op.153 from 1918—but it’s hard to tell from their decidedly 19th century musical style. It’s quite astonishing, for instance, to think that the Op.153 was written by a French composer during the last year of the Great War, and ten years after Schoenberg had first abandoned tonality; in places it’s almost Beethovenian. Fine Arts violinist Ralph Evans correctly describes the quartets as “serious, intellectual, brilliantly crafted yet delightful works,” but it’s difficult to identify a personal voice in them; they tend to remind you more of other composers than of Saint-Saëns himself. It’s also easy to see why his reputation in France had faded by the time of his death—he simply belonged to a different era.

James Manishen
Winnipeg Free Press, June 2011

YOU usually think of Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) as an expert craftsman with a fund of memorable melody set to charm and please, not a composer to challenge, argue or reflect in his music. But Saint-Saëns was far more than just a functional composer, as shown in his two string quartets written when he was in his 60s and 80s.

Quartet No. 1 in E minor is autumnal and deeply reflective; its dedication to the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe is evident in the featured writing for the first violin. The slow movement could almost be a Beethoven cavatina. No. 2 in G major recalls Mozart initially, but quickly moves into its own world.

Much credit here has to go to the Fine Arts Quartet. They’ve been around many years and their poise, commitment and overall finish show these excellent works in their best light. A must-discover side of Saint-Saëns, if you haven’t already.

Giv Cornfield, Ph.D.
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, June 2011

what comes to mind when thinking of this composer are the big orchestral and operatic works (and that ubiquitous Swan!). But there exists also a wealth of chamber music works in most forms and some rather unusual combinations, yet no works for piano and chamber ensemble—a bit surprising since Saint-Saëns was a performance-calibre pianist himself. The quartets, especially the later one in G, Op. 153 are rather modern-sounding—not much romantic flavour there. The Fine Arts Quartet has had many changes of personnel over the years, but its standard of playing has never been less than superb—as is the case with these quartets, with much presence and warm sound in the recording.

Bryce Morrison
Gramophone, June 2011

Music to change minds: two quartets that show Saint-Saëns’s hidden depths

The Fine Arts Quartet continue their admirable series (Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Franck and Fauré) with Saint-Saëns’s two string quartets. And here they make a persuasive case for music that is not only “brilliantly crafted” but “serious and intellectual” (their leader Ralph Evans). Certainly the First Quartet in E minor in particular is a reminder of music beyond the elegant facility with which Saint-Saëns is habitually credited. He may have “produced music as an apple tree produces apples” (his own words) but later in his life the string quartet provided him with a special challenge.

There is urgency as well as charm, and an expressive range that makes Fauré’s lifelong admiration understandable. The first-movement development is intricate and dramatic, and the second movement’s syncopation is again urgent rather than lightweight. There is major-key relief in the Second Quartet, composed in the spirit of Mozart and with the first movement’s celebration of youth clouded by an awareness of old age in the Molto adagio - Andantino (with his typically dry humour, Saint-Saëns dismissed it as “deadly dull”). But there is nothing dull about the Fine Arts’ playing. Excellently balanced and recorded, they bring fervour and commitment to music which will cause many listeners to reconsider Saint-Saëns’s musical standing.

Ralph Moore
MusicWeb International, May 2011

I am in agreement with other reviewers elsewhere that this is music which does not yield up its attractions on first listening. A certain cool formality—very different from that which we more readily associate with the composer of his more popular compositions—disguises its profundity. One reviewer even goes so far as to say that the failure of his string quartets to please or succeed, relative to Saint-Saëns’ popular works, is explained by their lack of memorability. This to me suggests lazy listening; certainly the members of the distinguished American group the Fine Arts Quartet believe in this music. Their first violinist Ralph Evans describes them as “serious, intellectual, brilliantly crafted yet delightful works which will change minds in a hurry”.

Despite having already written a good deal of chamber music, Op. 112 was Saint-Saëns’ first foray into the medium of the string quartet. These are both mature works, written when he was in his sixties and eighties respectively; the second, in particular, exudes the melancholy nostalgia associated with old age. His love of Bach and Mendelssohn is manifested in the frequent archaic and neo-classical allusions in his music and a love of the fugue, a favourite form which appears several time at different points in these works. Yet Saint-Saëns’ sound-world is clearly not entirely retrospective; it contains many Impressionistic touches, unsurprising from a composer whose career spanned the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth.

The E minor quartet begins in a melancholy vein, sombre and formal; there is always a note of anxiety throughout. The second movement calls for some superbly articulated triplets in the restatement of the principal theme. The Molto adagio is dominated by the singing of the first violin, presumably in homage to the dedicatee Eugène Ysaÿe. Played as well as it is here, this movement seems to match the poise and tenderness of the Beethoven Cavatina; there is the same sense of time suspended. In a more agitated passage a tentative, stuttering syncopated figure alternates with the slow theme before they resolve into the spacious calm of the concluding two minutes. Finally, the mood of agitation returns in the last movement which close uneasily with a frantic passage for the violin.

I have seen the Op.153 described as “a sunny, playful work” but that is really only half the story. It opens in neo-classical, Mozartian vein—momentum and elegance in a serene G major with some arresting shifts of key. The slow movement employs some exotic melody and harmony, perhaps the result of the composer’s familiarity with North Africa. It contains another serene cantabile dryly described by the composer with his typical wit as “deadly dull as an Adagio should be”. It is in fact teasingly beautiful, featuring towards the end little spiralling, descending curlicue figures on the first violin suggestive of acceptance and resignation. After the slow, contemplative introductory Interlude, so typical of Saint-Saëns’ classical forebears, cheerful, scampering fugal passages alternate with the reflective slow theme to close emphatically in a witty combination of plucked fifths and ascending chords, ending on the tonic.

The Fine Arts Quartet is equal to all Saint-Saëns’ demands for swift changes of mood and technical virtuosity. I have little to say about the quality of their playing beyond observing that to my ears they are impeccable, producing singing tone and unfailing homogeneity; I could not imagine finer advocacy of these neglected quartets. They are not easy listening but repeated encounters will, I am sure, pay dividends to the dedicated chamber music enthusiast.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group