There is some absolutely lovely music making to be cherished here. Saint-Saëns and Strauss probably look like odd bedfellows even on disc, but the program is a convincing argument that the pairing works. These well respected Portuguese artists play with flair and commitment, and I found myself excited by the music in a way that chamber music – which came late to me as an interest – rarely inspires in me.
The notes credit Saint-Saëns with bringing chamber music back into the French musical scene, and if that's so, we have much to be thankful for. This absolutely delicious sonata in D minor has all the fabled refinement of that French master, in such an intimate setting that you have to wonder why these works fail to be better known. A guitarist friend of mine called D minor "the saddest key in all of music", and while I'd usually agree with that assessment, Saint-Saëns goes in a different direction. It's wistful music, to be sure, but with a smile. The first movement simply beguiles; I dare you not to like this. The jaunty dance of a second movement allows Santos and Monteiro to show off, and the word here is "fun". It reminds me of the Carnival of the Animals, which again makes its underexposure all the more baffling. The final movement is very, very French – here a good thing, to be sure – and entirely charms. Like most of Saint-Saëns, it doesn't take a ton of musical risks, but taken as a whole it's a piece entirely worth knowing and loving.
Richard Strauss is certainly a composer who did take risks, although his early and late works both mellow considerably. The two-movement sonata here is a very early work, and one of his last chamber works before shocking the world with his operas and tone poems. It too is delightful, with a longing and sweet first movement that could even be mistaken for Brahms in some places. I'm less convinced by the second movement, which simply lacks enough contrast from the first movement (and contrast within the movement itself). If I'm less enthusiastic about it as a whole than the Saint-Saëns, that stems from the fact that it just isn't truly great music. Santos and Monteiro clearly believe in the piece, and the sonata is preferable to the same composer's somewhat lacking violin concerto, but as a whole the piece isn't a top choice for a violin sonata.
Santos and Monteiro are both outstanding artists. I occasionally wanted a little more dynamic contrast, but the sonic qualities on this disc probably don't help. They tend to be a little over-resonant, and sometimes the richness of the bass line in both works gets swallowed up in a "boomy" echo. Still, for the Saint-Saëns alone, this disc is a keeper.
Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman