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 Favourites, Camille Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-SaënsI hope it's not too much of a tired cliché to say that the reputation of the incredibly prolific Saint-Saëns seems to rest on just a handful of pieces (most notably Carnival of the Animals, Danse Macabre, the 'Organ' Symphony, and the opera, Samson et Dalila), but that a lot of his music deserves to be much better-known.

In particular there is a huge amount of chamber music that is most certainly worth getting to know, as well as five piano concertos and several other shorter orchestral works, and hopefully some of my suggestions below will encourage such a rewarding exploration of a fine composer.

Orchestral Works

There are many fine recordings of this most famous of Saint-Saëns's symphonies, but for me just edging out in front is this performance from the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by James Levine. Aside from some extremely impressive woodwind playing and suitably thrilling brass contributions, I chose it mainly for the sumptuously beautiful string playing in the Poco adagio section of the first movement. Organ duties are handled with aplomb by Simon Preston; the weighty tone at the organ's entry at the start of the second movement's Maestoso section doesn't disappoint.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Both of these symphonies are much rarer visitors to either the concert hall or the recording studio than the Third Symphony, but there's by no means a shortage of appealing music in either piece. Conductor Eliahu Inbal draws some excellent playing from the members of the Radio Symphony Orchestra Frankfurt.

Available Format: SACD

With performances as persuasive as these from pianist Stephen Hough, it makes one wonder why these works aren't performed more often. My favourite is probably the fifth concerto, nicknamed the Egyptian, in which the joy that both Hough and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under conductor Sakari Oramo bring to the last movement is quite palpable. A splendid set indeed, including other shorter works such as the Fantasy, Africa, partly written whilst Saint-Saëns was on an Egyptian cruise, recovering from a serious illness.

Available Format: 2 CDs

Violinist Deborah Nemtanu performs with energy and flair in this performance of the first Violin Concerto, and both she and the Orchestre chambre de Paris under conductor Thomas Zehetmair bring a sweet, radiant tone to the Romance in C major.

Available Format: CD

A disc of Saint-Saëns's best-known concertos, with soloist Renaud Capuçon on commanding form in the Violin Concerto No. 3, and his younger brother Gautier doing the honours in the Cello Concerto No. 1. The two siblings come together for a hauntingly expressive performance of La Muse et le Poète, all of which are ably supported by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Lionel Bringuier.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

A fiery, rhythmically incisive performance from cellist Peter Wispelwey and the Flanders Symphony Orchestra under Seiko Kim. Wispelwey is equally at home in the yearning phrases of the central Andante sostenuto as he is in the fiendish passagework and double-stopping of the last movement.

Available Format: CD

If the discs above have left you keen to explore Saint-Saëns's writing for solo string instruments further, then this 3-CD set, with soloists taken from members of the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel and accompanied by the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, is ideal. As well as the three Violin Concertos and two Cello Concertos, the collection also includes the Allegro appassionato for cello and orchestra, Havanaise for violin and orchestra, and several other charming rarities.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

A collection of shorter orchestral works from Charles Dutoit and the Philharmonia Orchestra, including Danse macabre as well as lesser-known pieces such as Phaéton, Le Rouet d'Omphale, La jeunesse d'Hercule, and Marche héroique. Dutoit also conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in two works for violin and orchestra, Havanaise and Introduction & Rondo capriccioso, for which they are joined by Korean virtuoso Kyung Wha Chung.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Opera, Choral and Vocal Works

Diego Fasolis conducts the Coro della Radio Svizzera and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana in an engaging account of the Requiem. The appealing team of soloists is led by Marie-Paule Dotti, and the choral singing is refined throughout, especially in an enchanting performance of the Hostias movement.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Saint-Saëns wrote quite a large number of songs, and this disc of twenty-seven of them is a real treat. Graham Johnson accompanies French baritone François Le Roux, and having a native speaker really helps, as his engagement with the text is really superb, from the tender lyricism of Dans ton cœur and Rêverie to the twisted waltz of the vocal version of Danse macabre.

Available Format: CD

Chamber and Instrumental Works

I lost count of the number of times I laughed out loud during this fabulously witty performance. Pianists Martha Argerich and Lilya Zilberstein lead an ensemble that brings a marvellous character to each of the animals portrayed, from the Tortoises who keep getting slower and slower and yet somehow still manage to struggle on, to the Pianists who really need to spend a bit more time practising their scales, and an eloquent account of The Swan from cellist Alexandre Debrus. You can just feel the enjoyment exuding from all of the musicians in every bar of this delightful performance.

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Typically polished, authoritative performances of the two Piano Trios by the members of the Florestan Trio, not least some graceful playing by pianist Susan Tomes in the Andante con moto of the E minor trio, and stirringly sophisticated contributions from violinst Anthony Marwood and cellist Richard Lester.

Available Format: CD

Cellist Christian Poltéra is accompanied by Kathryn Stott at the piano for outstanding performances of the two cello sonatas, as well as some shorter works, including two Romances, Prière, and The Swan from Carnival of the Animals. Poltéra's tone is especially lovely in the Romanza of the second Sonata.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

This 2-CD set of chamber music performed by the Nash Ensemble gets off to a great start with a poised, expertly-balanced performance of the Septet, and goes on to include spirited, characterful accounts of the sonatas for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, as well as the Piano Quartet in B flat and Piano Quintet in A minor.

Available Format: 2 CDs

The Fine Arts Quartet are exemplary advocates for Saint-Saëns's two string quartets, with beauty of tone in the slow movement of the first quartet contrasting with some nimble playing in the faster movements.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Saint-Saëns's Études make ferociously virtuosic demands upon any pianist, but thankfully Piers Lane is more than up to the task, not least in the set of six studies for the left hand alone, which are so outstandingly played that I was often left wondering whether he cheated and used both hands on occasion! (I'm sure he didn't...)

Available Format: CD

There's more to Saint-Saëns and the organ than just the Third Symphony, as Ben van Oosten shows in this 3-disc survey of the complete organ works, performed on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at L'église de la Madeleine, Paris.

Available Format: 3 CDs