Fauré & Saint Saëns: Works For Cello & Piano
Fauré & Saint-Saëns: Works for Cello & Piano
Quickly establishing himself as one of the finest Irish musicians of his generation, Brian O'Kane is joined by fellow-Irish pianist Michael McHale in this recording of works for Cello and Piano by Fauré and Saint-Saëns.
The disc, recorded on the Champs Hill Records label, celebrates the educing friendship between Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré, originally hailing from their master pupil days at the Niedermeyer School in Paris.
Brian O'Kane says of the disc, "The songs, romances and sonatas on this disc contact arguably some of the most beautiful repertoire for cello and piano, and because of their connections, offer an insight into how teacher and student can inspire one another."
Since winning first prize at the Windsor International String Competition in 2008, Brian O'Kane made his debuts with RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra under Ashkenazy and in recital at Wigmore Hall.
Winner of the Terence Judd / Hallé award in 2009, Belfast-born Michael McHale has established himself as one of Ireland's leading pianists. His critically acclaimed début solo album, The Irish Piano, was selected as 'CD of the Week' by the critic Norman Lebrecht.
- Sleeve Notes
Opposites can often attract, which may to some extent explain the enduring friendship between Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré. They first met as master and pupil at the Niedermeyer School in Paris (the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse, to give it its official title); Fauré had been sent there by his father in the hope that Gabriel’s budding musicianship could be trained towards a sensible career, such as an organist or choirmaster. Saint-Saëns, 25 years old when he became Gabriel’s piano teacher in 1861, was just ten years older than his pupil. Though notoriously prickly as a character, Saint-Saëns could be generous towards those he believed genuinely talented, and rapidly became fond of his softly spoken but highly gifted and witty student. He not only developed Fauré’s skills as a pianist, but also encouraged him in his early efforts in composition, introducing him to the music of such leading modern composers as Schumann, Liszt and Wagner.
In many ways their compositional styles were complementary in temperament – Saint-Saëns’s the more forthright yet urbanely classical, Fauré’s more subtle and reflective, yet ultimately the more forward-looking in its expressive range of harmonies. Yet their music has several qualities in common, including grateful and idiomatic writing for the piano, and, rather less predictably, a shared sensitivity for the expressive potential of the cello. Fauré showed his affinity for the violin relatively early, composing his A major Violin Sonata in 1875–76, but took some time to refine his style for its close baritone brother. As early as 1880 he attempted to write a cello sonata, of which the single-movement Élégie was the result. Other single-movement pieces followed, including the soulful and meditative Romance, which he originally composed for cello and organ. He ultimately rewrote this, transferring the organ part to piano, and performing this version himself in Geneva on 14 November 1894. In transferring the accompaniment from organ to piano, Fauré reworked the original crotchet chords as semiquaver figuration. The cello’s part remains unchanged, but for the very end where the soloist sustains the final high A instead of making, as in the original version, a two-octave descent to echo the two- octave fall heard in the grave and richly expressive introductory bars.
Several of Fauré’s songs from the 1870s were also transcribed, with the voice part – Fauré being particularly fond of warm timbres of relatively low tessitura – sounding at home in the new medium, the cello’s range at the same time working advantageously for the (uncharacteristically for Fauré) wide vocal compass required for both Au bord de l’eau (composed in 1875) and Après un rêve (composed in 1877).
Saint-Saëns meanwhile, with his ten years seniority over Fauré, enjoyed something of a head start, composing his First Cello Sonata in C minor in 1872. This was for the newly formed Société National de Musique, founded on 25 February 1871 of which Saint-Saëns, then aged 36, was a chief instigator. Created following France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, and just days before the Prussian army marched down the Champs-Élysées, the Société was consciously an act of defiance, one which appears to be reflected in the turbulent character of Saint-Saëns’s Sonata. It is therefore, perhaps, ironic that the composers it so patently echoes include Beethoven in its gruff and sometimes stormy first movement, while the chorale-like theme that dominates the second movement reflects Saint-Saëns’s admiration for Bach. The opening theme also recalls Schumann’s Wehmut from Liederkreis, Op.39, which, if intentional, may well have reflected a sense of grief Saint-Saëns felt, paying tribute to musical heroes close to his heart even as he attempted to galvanise French pride through his music.
Several sources tell the story that Saint-Saëns’s domineering mother disapproved of the Sonata’s original finale; whereupon the composer confined himself to his room for eight days, only emerging for meals, finally presenting the entirely new finale. To the dismay of several cellists, and even musicologists, the piano in this movement is given “too preponderant” a part (to quote Martin Cooper): indeed, through much of the Sonata an insensitive pianist could sound as if they were storming through a concerto rather than being a partner in a chamber work. Yet Saint-Saëns’s First Sonata was much admired by Fauré; in 1917, having completed his own First Cello Sonata, Fauré wrote to his wife Marie: “Among modern French or foreign sonatas for cello there is only one of importance: that by Saint-Saëns. It is a masterpiece that is heard too rarely and that is because cellists pretend that their part is less brilliant than that of the piano! As if, in a combined work, the total effect does not result from the combination of different instruments.”
Saint-Saëns’s Romance in F, Op.36, composed in 1874, was originally intended for horn rather than cello, and was dedicated to the horn player Henri Garigue, who had won first prize at the Paris Conservatoire in 1862. Yet its mellow cantabile line, a worthy challenge for a great horn player, well suits the cello’s naturally singing tone. The Romance in D, Op.51, followed three years later: initially light-hearted and even playful in character, the piece reveals an increasingly impassioned character, but finally ends in serene mood with the cello playing harmonics. Most beautiful of all and deservedly well known of all his cello works is The Swan, composed in 1886. Originally written for cello and two pianos, Saint-Saëns presented this as a gift to the cellist Charles Lebouc, who was then on the point of retirement. Given the satirical nature of the piece’s original context, Carnival of the Animals, Saint-Saëns perhaps intended it, mischievously if affectionately, as a “swan song” for Lebouc!
With Fauré’s two sonatas, we encounter two of the very greatest yet among the most underestimated works of the cello repertory. Fauré’s admiration of Saint-Saëns’s First Sonata has already been mentioned, and one can only assume that it was with a particular feeling that he faced yet again the prospect of invading German armies during the First World War. The turbulent style of the opening movement, with piano and cello battling in the bass, to an extent echoes Saint-Saëns’s work; yet this is very much in a new style forged from Fauré’s subtle and harmonically more advanced tonal language. At the same time, the music – certainly the opening theme which dominates the first movement – is far more edgy and belligerent than is typical of Fauré’s work, with martial-like dotted rhythms and wide-leaping themes. More recognizably his style is the optimistically rising second theme, though soon the cello faces the battering, almost percussive rattle of the piano part. The slow central movement, with the piano’s hints of chiming bells, offers respite, though something,
too, of a mournful processional; a particularly poignant lullaby-like theme, introduced by the cello at the movement’s centre, builds to a climax similar to that of the Passacaille in the wartime Piano Trio by Fauré’s pupil, Ravel. The genial finale – at times recalling the hopeful conclusion of Fauré’s song cycle La bonne chanson – looks forward to a more positive prospect.
Cello Sonata No.2 was composed between March and November 1921. In October 1920 Fauré had been pressured to retire as head of the Paris Conservatoire, due to his deafness and failing health. Insult was added to injury when the state attempted to refuse him a pension on the grounds that he had only been employed 28 of the required 30 years to qualify; intervention by the director of the Beaux-Arts and the Conseil d’État finally secured financial support, as a special favour, for the composer. Fauré’s son, Philippe, claimed his father “suffered deeply but silently”, yet Fauré himself put a brave face on the matter and wrote to Marie: “I must bless the good fortune which relieves me of a great weight.”
The Second Sonata starts as if in mid-flow, with the cello following the piano in rough canon (rather in the manner of the finale of Franck’s Violin Sonata). The music generally has a twilight wistfulness and beauty, akin to the ‘Pastorale’ movement to Masques et bergamasques Fauré completed in 1919, albeit in rather more lively tempo. The following Andante movement is based, unexpectedly, on a commemorative wind- band piece Fauré composed for the centenary of the death of Napoleon I. Gravely processional, the movement recalls both Fauré’s earlier Élégie and Mort de Mélisande from his 1898 incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande. The finale, though initially in the home key of G minor, is so sparkling and mercurial in character that one is impressed most by the music’s exuberance, even before the final coda in unambiguous G major. Vincent d’Indy wrote to Fauré after the Sonata’s premiere on 13 May 1922: “I want to tell you that I’m still under the spell of your beautiful Cello Sonata... The Andante is a masterpiece of sensitivity and expression, and I love the finale, so perky and delightful... How lucky you are to stay so young!”
- Press Reviews
"Eloquent, balanced performances that both sparkle and sing"
"Rather like his Berceuse, the Romance Op. 69 is muted in its melodic style, but the intensity of feeling is always near the surface - a duality of emotion perfectly encapsulated by these musicians."
"Assisted by a very fine recording balance, this imaginative programme offers familiar repertoire as well as two lesser-known works."
"...breathtaking in the Andante of the first [Fauré] Sonata..."
"The Swan glides with effortless grace"
- Joanne Talbot, The Strad Magazine
"Cellist O'Kane is the star of this disc..."
"...sensitive and introspective in 'The Swan', then animated and robust in Saint-Saëns's 'Sonata No. 1'..."
- BBC Music Magazine
Both players capture the wistful nature of Fauré's music and the flowing lyricism of Saint-Saëns with unerring elan."
"...some of the finest of all French cello music."
- Fiona Maddocks, The Observer
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