Piano Quintet No.1
Saint-Saëns
Piano Quintet

Ironwood

ABC Classics ABC481 9887
Full price

The Review

Ironwood give these quintets the full period style treatment, the period being the middle years of the 19th century, when romantic practice was maturing and becoming more indulgent of special effects. If you don’t like spread piano chords, extensive portamento in the violins and a piano sound far more brittle than a modern Steinway, then this record is not for you.

On the other hand, the comprehensive research on which the interpretations are based suggests that you probably would not have enjoyed a performance in 1839 (the Farrenc) or 1855 very much either. While the Farrenc style is a touch more classical, occupying the same territory and instrumentation as Schubert’s Trout Quintet (single violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano) it still has the swish of voluminous skirts and the doffing of velvet top hats in its make-up.

The Saint-Saëns, with two violins and no double bass, is in full swoop and slide mode, though even Ironwood do not take things to the extremes one hears in the very early recordings of solo strings that Saint-Saëns would have been familiar with. Neal Peres Da Costa plays an 1869 Erard piano which has little of the seductiveness of later instruments but has the benefit of more bite and a bell-like quality in the lower registers which combines with the strings to give contrast to the sound. The tone is spikier but also has a range of timbre that compels attention. I am not quite convinced that every chord needs to be spread to the extent of almost sounding like an arpeggio. Like all effects, it is effective once in a while but there are moments in the music that call for a more decisive attack.

A fifth of the way through the twenty-first century we have very different sensibilities and opinions from 160 years ago. We now do not feel comfortable with the politics, social codes, gender expectations, environmental conditions or poetic and visual grammar of those times, so it is hardly surprising that we should also baulk at some of the musical conventions, while still loving the music itself. Somehow period baroque and classical style is more satisfying than that of the 1830s and the century afterwards.

None of that, though, should detract from appreciation of the quality of the scholarship or the understanding in the performances. They catch the urgency of the music as much as the slightly suffocating salon context. Farrenc’s music has long needed recordings as committed and expressive as this. She was such an important figure in Parisian music life that only misogyny has kept her out of the historical limelight. Ironwood are magnificent, even if I do not always want to hear Parisian music to sound quite so authentic.

SM