Saint-Saens / Violin Concerto No. 3 – Our Shootout Winner from 2013

Hot Stamper Pressings Featuring the Violin

This White Hot Stamper original Blue Angel pressing has some of the most exquisite sound for a violin/orchestral recording we have ever heard here at Better Records. I do not think there is any Heifetz album on RCA Shaded Dog (or otherwise) to compete with it. We would rank this Angel recording/pressing with the best of Rabin and Milstein on Capitol, as well as the wonderful Ricci and Campoli discs on London/Decca. In other words, this is one of the best sounding violin-led orchestral recordings we have yet to play, and we’ve played them by the hundreds and hundreds. (Practice makes perfect they say.)

So clear, so three-dimensional, so relaxed, rich and sweet — can it get any better? I’d have to say not much!

It’s the Chausson piece that earned our highest grade of Three Pluses, a work that is certainly less well-known than the legendary Saint-Saens Third. Both are superb examples of the kind of sophisticated, melody-driven music the French Romantic school was producing in the latter part of the 19th century. You may become as big a fan of the Chausson as we happily admit to being now, having heard this wonderful pressing.

Side two of this copy easily puts most of the TAS Super Discs to shame. I would venture to say that there’s a very good chance that you have NEVER heard a violin-led orchestral recording as good as this one. It’s clearly superior to most of what I take to be the pressings that audiophiles cherish as demonstrably superior. (Don’t even bring up that crap the Classic pressed on the Heifetz RCA’s. They may impressed the critics and the man-in-the-street audiophile, but they sure didn’t impress us much.)

The fact that this wonderful sound has been found on a lowly domestic Angel pressing is, to me, the icing on the cake.

Side two as a rule had better sound than side one on the copies we played. Finding any recording of the Saint-Saens with good sound was not easy; most did not hit the one minute mark on our turntable. These Angel pressings were clearly the best we had to work with.

And the copy we have on offer here surprised us; it is certainly not the pressing we would have expected to win!

Side Two – Chausson

A+++ (at least — I could easily go higher!) Rich and sweet, with a correctly extended but not exaggerated top end, which serves to make the harmonics of the violin sound both smooth and natural, never forced or shrill.

That’s the violin. The hall is huge and three-dimensional with astounding depth (if you can reproduce it; those of you with the best dedicated rooms and room treatments are sure to be floored by the sound!).

The transparency of this side two lets you “see” the orchestra clearly, without sacrificing richness or weight.

What a side! What a performance from Milstein, Fistoulari and the The Philharmonia Orchestra!

Side One- Saint-Saens

A+ to A++, excellent, not quite Super Hot, and certainly not the equal of side two, but easily a big step up over most of the recordings we played of the work.

The violin has a solid middle and sounds tonally correct throughout, but it does have a trace of tubey smear and can get a bit harsh in places. The orchestra would benefit from a bit more richness, all of which adds up to sound that’s shy of Super Hot Stamper status, but is nevertheless still powerful and enjoyable. It’s going to be tough to beat, that’s for sure.


Side One

Saint-Saens – Violin Concerto No. 3

Side Two

Chausson – Poeme for Violin and Orchestra

Violin Concerto No. 3

Richard Freed

Saint-Saëns composed the last of his three violin concertos in 1880 for the Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, who introduced the work in a concert at the Châtelet, Paris, on January 2 of the following year. Sylvia Lent was the soloist in the National Symphony Orchestra’s first performance of the Concerto, with Hans Kindler conducting, on January 29, 1933; in the most recent ones, on January 15, 16 and 17, 2004, the soloist was the orchestra’s concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef and the conductor was Leonard Slatkin.
In addition to the solo violin, the score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets in pairs, with three trombones and strings. Duration, 30 minutes.

Saint-Saëns was productively interested in numerous forms of creativity and mental exercise in addition to music throughout his long life. While his musical tastes remained fairly conservative, he was alert enough to the possibilities of new technology to be credited with composing the earliest known filmscore.

He was a brilliant pianist, admired for his performances of Mozart and Beethoven, and he followed their examples in composing all five of his piano concertos for his own use. He was also happy to provide concert showpieces for other instruments: he composed two concertos and some other concerted works for the cello, and no fewer than eight works for violin and orchestra. Several of those eight works, among them the first and last of his three concertos, bear dedications to Sarasate.

There were other great violinists in Sarasate’s time–the Pole Henryk Wieniawski, for one, and the Belgian Eugène Ysaÿe, and the enormously respected Hungarian Joseph Joachim, to name an outstanding few–and each earned admiration with a style of his own and a repertory tailored to that style. They were all “virtuoso-composers,” who provided pieces designed basically as personal showpieces.

Joachim, who was also a conductor and a distinguished pedagogue, went farther afield than his fellow violinists in his own creative efforts, but Sarasate was content to concentrate on enriching the violin repertory, and did so mainly by exploiting the infectious charm of his national idiom. Composers loved to write for him: Edouard Lalo’s most enduring concert work is the Symphonie espagnole he composed for Sarasate.

Sarasate was especially fond, however, of this Concerto in B minor by Saint-Saëns, which in both form and content appears as a striking parallel to the famous Concerto in E minor composed by Mendelssohn in the year of the Spanish violinist’s birth. A brief but more or less definitive analysis of the work appeared in a biographical study of Saint-Saëns by Otto Nietzel, published in Berlin in 1899 (when Saint-Saëns, a mere 64, had 22 years more to live and dozens of compositions still ahead of him):

The first and third movements are characterized by somber determination, which in the finale, introduced by an instrumental recitative, appears with intensified passion. The middle movement is in strong contrast, and over it the spring sun smiles. There is toward the end a striking effect produced by lower clarinet tones and the solo violin with octave harmonics. A hymn serves an an appeasing episode in the stormy passion of the finale; it reappears in the brass; warring strings try to drive it away; it is a thoughtfully conceived and individual passage, both in rhythm and in timbre.

One of Saint-Saëns’s contemporaries once referred to him as “the only great composer who was not a genius.” Both genius and greatness are qualities hard to measure or define. For his own part, Saint-Saëns, who was active as a poet, mathematician, astronomer and archaeologist as well as a musician, was not concerned about the term or its application, and did not seek to mystify or glorify his creative process, which he summed up in the frequently quoted statement,

As an apple tree produces apples, so do I fulfil the function of my nature. I have no need to trouble myself with what others may think.


Description by Adrian Corleonis

On being asked by his friend, the renowned Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, for a violin concerto, Chausson dithered. The demands implied by the form, coupled with his high seriousness, loomed oppressively just as he was entering a new phase of freedom, fluency, and aureate fancy.

It has been suggested by Chausson’s biographer, Jean Gallois, that the Poème — with which he eventually answered Ysaÿe’s request — was prompted by a Turgenev tale of jealousy and death in which the novelist’s thwarted passion for the French mezzo-soprano, Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), is transposed into a fabulous Renaissance setting fraught with a magic potion, a violin whose music ravishes the soul, and a lover returned from the legendary orient.

Chausson knew and frequently entertained Mme. Viardot — she who had created the role of Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète, who was an accomplished composer, painter, and writer, and upon whom Berlioz in his last decade had a lingering crush — and her husband. Thus the elements of what might have been the strangest of grand operas were in place.

It is a mark of Chausson’s genius that he eschewed the commonplaces of narrative to transmute those elements into a seamlessly compelling work for violin and orchestra — for the Poème is not program music. Rather, its high fantasy — superbly sustained — relies upon deftly dovetailed but clearly distinguished episodes, thematically linked.

Lento e misterioso, a harmonically rich introduction, rippled with thematic premonitions, immediately casts forth an enveloping aura of the fantastic, exalted, and exquisite, before the solo violin enters with a slow, elegiacally beguiling, doubly arched melody, echoed by the orchestra in a sensuous chorale.

The violin answers with a solo variation in which the melody is accompanied by rapid scale and arpeggio figures, punctuated by frequent double stops, to magical effect. The orchestra responds with an extended Animato shimmer which the effusively varied violin theme seems to mesmerize as it soars aloft in ever more ecstatic flights.

In a Molto animato gasp, the orchestra lunges over the theme’s contours to begin a hectically syncopated accompaniment to the violin’s riveting sorcery in rapid thirds, fourths, and sixths. For a brief, hesitating moment, passion seems exhausted. With a triplet-coiled ascent of three octaves, the violin rouses the orchestra, which responds again with the theme’s chorale-like enunciation as it is slowly enchanted into another spate of enraptured shimmer over which the violin, with a lacing, lashing, feverishly entrancing new melody, brings all to a sudden climax.

The chorale returns, vehement but giving way to weary finality as the violin croons and surges aloft to sink in chains of trills, spent, to a sumptuous cadence.

Artist Biography – Camille Saint-Saens

by Robert Cummings

Camille Saint-Saëns was something of an anomaly among French composers of the nineteenth century in that he wrote in virtually all genres, including opera, symphonies, concertos, songs, sacred and secular choral music, solo piano, and chamber music.

He was generally not a pioneer, though he did help to revive some earlier and largely forgotten dance forms, like the bourée and gavotte. He was a conservative who wrote many popular scores scattered throughout the various genres: the Piano Concerto No. 2, Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”), the symphonic poem Danse macabre, the opera Samson et Dalila, and probably his most widely performed work, The Carnival of The Animals. While he remained a composer closely tied to tradition and traditional forms in his later years, he did develop a more arid style, less colorful and, in the end, less appealing. He was also a poet and playwright of some distinction.

Saint-Saëns was born in Paris on October 9, 1835. He was one of the most precocious musicians ever, beginning piano lessons with his aunt at two-and-a-half and composing his first work at three. At age seven he studied composition with Pierre Maledin. When he was ten, he gave a concert that included Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, Mozart’s B flat Concerto, K. 460, along with works by Bach, Handel, and Hummel. In his academic studies, he displayed the same genius, learning languages and advanced mathematics with ease and celerity. He would also develop keen, lifelong interests in geology and astronomy.

In 1848, he entered the Paris Conservatory and studied organ and composition, the latter with Halévy. By his early twenties, following the composition of two symphonies, he had won the admiration and support of Berlioz, Liszt, Gounod, Rossini, and other notable figures. From 1853 to 1876, he held church organist posts; he also taught at the École Niedermeyer (1861-1865). He composed much throughout his early years, turning out the 1853 Symphony in F (“Urbs Roma”), a Mass (1855) and several concertos, including the popular second, for piano (1868).

In 1875, Saint-Saëns married the 19-year-old Marie Truffot, bringing on perhaps the saddest chapter in his life. The union produced two children who died within six weeks of each other, one from a four-story fall. The marriage ended in 1881. Oddly, this dark period in his life produced some of his most popular works, including Danse macabre (1875) and Samson et Dalila (1878). After the tragic events of his marriage, Saint-Saëns developed a fondness for Fauré and his family, acting as a second father to Fauré’s children.

But he also remained very close to his mother, who had opposed his marriage. When she died in 1888, the composer fell into a deep depression, even contemplating suicide for a time. He did much travel in the years that followed and developed an interest in Algeria and Egypt, which eventually inspired him to write Africa (1891) and his Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Egyptian”. He also turned out works unrelated to exotic places, such as his popular and most enduring serious composition, the Symphony No. 3.

Curiously, after 1890, Saint-Saëns’ music was regarded with some condescension in his homeland, while in England and the United States he was hailed as France’s greatest living composer well into the twentieth century. Saint-Saëns experienced an especially triumphant concert tour when he visited the U.S. in 1915. In the last two decades of his life, he remained attached to his dogs and was largely a loner. He died in Algeria on December 16, 1921.

Artist Biography – Ernest Chausson

by Rovi Staff

If Marcel Proust had written music, it might have sounded something like Ernest Chausson’s: intensely passionate, yet rarely given to grand gestures. The effectiveness of Chausson’s ardent, even erotic, musical language derives largely from the slithery chromatic style the composer inherited from his most important teacher, César Franck.

Not a prolific composer, Chausson died in 1899, at the age of 44, from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident. Chausson’s death silenced the most distinctive voice in French music in the generation immediately preceding Debussy’s; indeed, Chausson’s music forms an elegant, if swaying, bridge between Franck’s lush, Wagnerian Romanticism and the sensuous Impressionist language of Debussy.

Chausson came from a well-to-do family; in fact, comfortable circumstances throughout his entire life made it unnecessary for him to pursue a living as a musician. Although interested in music from a young age, Chausson pursued law studies at his father’s behest. In 1877, he was sworn in as a lawyer in Paris; in the same year, he wrote his first work, the unpublished song Lilas.

The impulse to devote himself to composition was sparked in 1879, when he attended a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Munich and met there the sometime Wagner disciple Vincent d’Indy. Chausson entered the Paris Conservatory in the following year and began studies with Jules Massenet; his formal musical education was rounded out by private study with Franck. Chausson’s talent flowered in short order; a number of even his earliest published works — especially the song set Seven Melodies, Op. 2 (1879-1882) — have long been regarded as small masterpieces.

As secretary of the Société Nationale de Musique (an organization founded by Saint-Saëns and others to promote the performance of French instrumental music) from 1886, Chausson became a full-fledged member of the Parisian musical community. His salon became a regular meeting place for literary and musical notables includeing Mallarmé, Debussy, Albéniz, pianist Alfred Cortot, and violinist/composer Eugène Ysaÿe.

A prolific composer of songs, Chausson also composed works for voice and orchestra, choral music, and several operas. He is best known, however, for his chamber music — especially the Concerto for piano, violin, and string quartet, Op. 21 (1889-1891), and the Piano Quartet, Op. 30 (1897) — and for imaginative orchestral works like the Symphony in B flat major, Op. 20 (1889-1890), and the Poème for violin and orchestra, Op. 25 (1896).