CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS – String Quartet No. 1

French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns [1835-1921], wrote two string quartets. Just a bit of trivia from Wiki:

Saint-Saëns had been composing since the age of three; his mother preserved his early works, and in adult life he was surprised to find them technically competent though of no great musical interest. The earliest surviving piece, dated March 1839, is in the collection of the Paris Conservatoire.

I am going to discuss the First Quartet, in E minor, written in 1899. It consists of four movements.

The work opens with a stunning solo violin statement, which is soon joined by the ensemble in a gentle manner. The solo violin continues to dominate until, suddenly, we have a rise in intensity and dynamics. This is followed by a virtuosic melodic line, with the ensemble hanging on every note. As the mood is tempered, the cello becomes prominent and engages, first with the violin and then the ensemble. Eventually the ensemble returns to dominate, and the energy dissipates for a time. Strong harmonised violin lines return and propel the music forward. The cello returns with an alluring statement and dialogues with the violins for a most attractive passage. The violins eventually prevail and a pause ensues. Now a solo violin again leads the ensemble, this time, in a charming folk-like manner. The violin here is superb and the cello steps out to complement it; this is ravishing writing. The energy starts to increase and the ensemble finish with a strong flurry of notes.

A considered melodic violin line commences the next movement, which is marked allegro . The violins parry with each other and the accompaniment is very strong. Many sweeping violin lines are to be heard over a positively propulsive ensemble. The dynamics vary many times, from one violin and a cello to pizzicato based sounds. All the while, strong violins dominate, as they constantly return to very rhythmic phrases. Nearing the end, the violins return to this world and gently conclude.

An adagio movement provides welcome relief from the previous energised sections. A solo violin muses over a gentle layer of sound, gradually becoming more dominant. Now a rhythm ensues and the two violins spar before a solo violin crafts a marvellous mood, which is eventually joined by a restrained ensemble. The music is sparse and stately, as a minimal backing allows the violin to move into a tempo. The backing is still measured, as the violin soars. This section continues for some time and the violin is most appealing in this ambient texture. The cello has a role to play as it changes the feeling, allowing the solo violin to bring about a resolution.

The final movement begins in a more modern, slightly abstract manner. It soon moves into a violin directing proceedings over a harmonic atmosphere. The violin then leads the ensemble through a jaunty section, where it expresses freely. The abstraction has now departed and we are back into Romantic territory. After a long period of melodic development, the tone becomes subdued and the cello features prominently in reining in the tempo. There is a false ending, then the whole ensemble come together in a brisk tempo which terminates the work.

I must confess to having a weakness for French string quartets, and this one is very elegant. The review CD by the Fine Arts Quartet also contains The Second Quartet. It is on the Naxos label and is available on Amazon US and UK. There are three versions on Spotify, including the Fine Arts, and several versions on YouTube.

Listenability: Another fine Romantic French work.

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