Review: Saint-Saëns’ Natural Talent for Writing String Quartets & More

By Mary Nemet

Camille Saint-Saëns: String Quartets, No. 1 in G, Op. 112, and No. 2 in E minor, Op. 153

Bärenreiter, €29.95

Popularly known for his inimitable Carnival of the Animals and other large orchestral showpieces, it was a surprise to learn that Saint-Saëns wrote many chamber works: sonatas, piano trios, quintets, and septets for various combinations of instruments. Saint-Saëns’ only two ventures in the quartet genre date from his later years. In 1899, he was 64 when he wrote the first, and he was a venerable 83 by the time he penned his second and last quartet in 1918. Having put the boldness of youth behind him, this self-professed guardian of tradition threw caution to the wind.

One might expect these to be dogmatic works. However, both break the mold and are strikingly original in style, harmony, and format. Deliberately orchestral and at times impressionistic in color, they flout Beethovenian conventions of equality and form, with fluid phrases interweaving in beguiling sound patterns.

The first quartet was composed within a space of six weeks in early 1899 and published by Durand in November that year. Dedicated to Ysaÿe, who gave it several run-throughs with his quartet, it then received two private performances by Jacques Thibaud’s quartet. Shortly after Brussels and London premieres by the Ysaÿe Quartet in 1900–01, the Quartet Op. 112 was quickly hailed as a classic within the French string-quartet repertory.

The Allegro begins with a nostalgic melody, leading to a more energetic section before giving way to a lyrical cello line. The entrancing Molto allegro quasi presto in the style of a scherzo with its mesmerizing syncopated tunes is a tour-de-force with its quirky flashes of humor. A change of pace follows in the nostalgic Molto adagio before the final Allegro mirrors the earlier Presto in its feverish restlessness and momentum.

The second quartet, similarly neglected, also demonstrates Saint-Saëns’ effortless mastery of string textures and his sheer inventiveness. Continual surprises enliven the overall effect, with subtle harmonic, rhythmic, and emotional shifting of gears and dramatic changes of tone color. With a backward nod, there’s a sweet, serene Haydnesque opening Allegro, and then an evocative Molto adagio with hints of the composer’s many trips to North Africa.

The playful finale concludes with brilliant, scurrying virtuoso phrases and short fugues that belie the composer’s advanced years. Refusing to be pigeon-holed, the prolific master craftsman retains his wit and charm to the end. Quartets looking for powerful and brilliantly original works from the late French Romantic period need seek no further than these fine examples.


Adroitly organized page turns with foldout pages in the first and second violin parts in both quartets complement these fastidiously prepared Bärenreiter publications.

Johann Ernst Bach: Six Sonatas for Piano & Violin

Doblinger Diletto Musicale, €34.95

The publishing house of Doblinger continues to produce rarities and classics of musical repertoire, with now over 1,400 titles in scholarly practical editions. Their latest presentations include six sonatas by Johann Ernst Bach (1722–77). Coming from the long dynasty of the Bach family, with Johann Sebastian as his teacher and godfather, Johann Ernst was destined to continue the tradition.

Although he is little known now, in his day he held important appointments as organist and kapellmeister in and around his hometown of Eisenach. Dismissed by critics of the time as too modern, expecting truer trios in the style of J.S. Bach and Telemann, in the 20th century, listeners’ and players’ perspectives changed radically. A Mr. Kretzschmar names them as among the most beautiful sonatas of the 18th century, and a later critic, Geiringer, calls them the most important violin sonatas between J.S. Bach and Mozart, describing them as joyful, lively, and witty, free of the shallowness sometimes linked to the Gallant style.

Typical of the period, the piano still plays the dominating part; however increasing dialogue emerges, with thematic elaborations connecting the keyboard’s virtuosic passages in delightful fashion and with greater input from the violin. In Doblinger’s clear printing, both parts are free of emendations. Duettists will revel in these charming works. —MN 

Tchaikovsky: Children’s Album, 12 Pieces for String Orchestra


Universal Edition, $23

In 1878 Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck, Tomorrow I will begin a collection of miniature pieces for children . . . and contribute to the best of my abilities, the enrichment of the musical literature for children which is very poor. I will write easy little pieces to attract children, as Schumann did. Schumann, Kabalevsky, Bizet, Ravel, and Bartók all wrote piano works for children, either to listen to or be playable by young people.

Although today undemanding and musically appealing pieces for students are more available, Peer Baierlein was inspired to extend the scope even more, penning these arrangements from Tchaikovsky’s piano album for five-part string ensemble. A quintet comprising two violins, viola, cello, and bass presented itself as a good basis to produce a unified yet nuanced string sound. Con sordino, ponticello, pizzicato, and double-stops serve to broaden students’ technique and add interest.

The 24 piano solos in Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album, Op. 39, dating from 1878, are more in the realm of seasoned professional pianists. However, from the two-hand piano score, Peer Baierlein has brought these enchanting pieces to life for young string players, transcribing 12 of the 24 for string quintet. His five-voice score works well, with a rich harmony texture, even though there is a sparser line for double bassists. I imagine that Tchaikovsky would be pleased with the outcome—after all, his goal was to extend and enrich music for the young. —MN 

Luciano Berio: Duetti for 2 Violas


Arr. Annegret Mayer-Lindenberg.

Universal, €27.95

The story goes that Berio was told by a violinist friend that there are not enough violin duets in the world. He immediately set about writing duets over the next four years (1979–83) at his home in Radicondoli and also in Paris, Stockholm, and Tel Aviv. It was Berio’s intention to write a kaleidoscope of about hundred duets, to offer inexperienced players the opportunity to perform contemporary music without undue technical difficulty.

As it turned out, there are 34 folk-like duets, modeled on Bartók’s 44. Comprising volume 1, volume 2 was never realized. However Berio goes further than folk music. Still with a pedagogical objective, he focuses on expressing his friends’ various characters with dedications to Bruno Maderna, Pierre Boulez, and Lorin Maazel, among many other colleagues. Duet 1 fittingly pays homage to Bartók. Berio’s ultimate wish was to involve players in every category: beginners, intermediate, and advanced, with a mix of students and their teachers, and to involve as large a number as possible onstage.

These short musical masterpieces serve to introduce 20th-century ideas to students. Some employ unusual sound concepts, such as sul ponticello, sul tasto, and difficult left-hand pizzicato, while others present complex rhythmic challenges in mixed meters.

Integrating neo-Baroque to folk and many other influences, these fascinating mini-duos offer a feeling of equality between first and second player. This arrangement for two violas lies well and adds appropriate tonal timbre—a welcome addition to the scant viola duo repertoire. Universal’s clear and spacious print is a joy to read. —MN