In this saga of hatred and holy war, of power and desire, there is no victor and no truth. The god-like is diminished, power restricted, taboos are broken, love betrayed. Only the composer can afford uninterrupted pathos in the wonderful duet of Samson and Dalila in the second act, which misleads us to believe in a moving story of love. Perhaps it truly is. The story of Samson is contradictory, it is human. Camille Saint-Saëns completed the work in 1876, but was only able to bring about its first performance in 1877 through the mediation of his friend Franz Liszt with pre-eminent success in Weimar. In France, where the elements of oratorio and the influence of Wagner were not well received, the first performance would not follow for another 13 years. Samson et Dalila ranks among the masterpieces of 19th century French Opera - and among the showpieces favored by the Argentine tenor José Cura. In the recorded production he saw himself celebrated on stage as a unified three-in-one: eponymous hero, director and stage designer.
Olga Borodina sings the role of Dalila here too; her tone in the famous aria Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix is quite ravishing, and she is matched by an heroic performance from Plácido Domingo as Samson. James Levine has an expert grasp of the drama in this 1998 Elijah Moshinsky production from the Metropolitan Opera. There's also some luxury casting in the form of Sergei Leiferkus as Le Grand Prêtre de Dagon and René Pape as Le Vieillard Hébreu. (James Longstaffe)
After a highly acclaimed recording of Briten’s Cello Symphony (ONYX4058) Pieter Wispelwey and the Flanders Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seiko Kim, turn to two romantic cello concertos whose neglect is hard to fathom. Lalo, unusually for a French composer in the mid 19th century, was drawn to chamber music, and formed a string quartet (in which he played viola, and later second violin) that championed the works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. His passion for chamber music developed to embrace large scale orchestral works – two violin concertos, the famous 'Symphonie espagnole' for violin and orchestra, a symphony in G minor, the Piano Concerto and the concerto recorded here: the Cello concerto in D minor of 1877.
The acclaimed Fidelio Trio make their Resonus debut with an exquisite recording of French piano trios – Camille Saint-Saëns’ large-scale Op. 92 second trio, and Maurice Ravel’s sole foray into the genre dating from 1914. Coming off the back of a Royal Philharmonic Society Award nomination in 2016, this recording sees the trio expand on their unparalleled reputation for new music, demonstrating the vast range of this brilliant chamber group’s abilities and talent.
Saint-Saens’s Etudes offer an intricate and scintillating panoply of the French school of technique (the basis and prophecy of what Jean-Philippe Collard so mischievously called Marguerite Long’s ‘diggy-diggy-dee’ school of piano playing). Yet as Piers Lane tells us in his alternately wry and delightful accompanying essay (obligatory reading for all lovers of French pianism), they can be as evocative (‘Les cloches de las Palmas’) as they are finger-twisting (‘En forme de valse’, to name but one). The left-hand Etudes, too, given their self-imposed limitation, are a fragile and poetic surprise. In other words Saint-Saens’s Etudes are more comprehensive than their equivalents by, say, Moszkowski or Lazare Levey (superbly recorded by Ilana Vered on Connoisseur Society and Danielle Laval on French EMI, respectively – neither issued in the UK).
Arthur Rubinstein had performed Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 many times throughout his concert career; in fact, this was one of the pieces on the program of his first public concert given in 1900. The style in which he plays it is simply captivating. It's not a serious concerto in the German-school, but rather a light-hearted and somewhat amusing concerto. This is probably the most famous recording of the composition, and it's no wonder why. The Symphonic Variations of Cesar Franck are fantastic, full of energy, vitality and French-Romantic beauty.
This generously programmed disc provides excellent value and outstanding performances of both major and lesser-known masterpieces of French choral music. The Fauré Requiem has been recorded many times, and several excellent versions of the original orchestration are available on disc. This one is among them, owing to John Eliot Gardiner's experience and perfectionist mastery of details overlooked by less-successful choral conductors. The real bonus here is the inclusion of the popular but very difficult Debussy and Ravel chansons, and the rarely heard but eminently worthy little part songs by Saint-Saëns. These pieces are a lesson in how to achieve maximum effect with the simplest materials.