Sunday, November 13, 2011

Camille Saint-Saens’ “Le carnaval des animaux,” Conducted by Charles Dutoit (Complete Version)


I thank LindoroRossini for the uploads, as well the liner notes!

Nos. 1-7, Featuring Pacal Rogé


Because he wanted to be considered a composer of serious, substantial music, Camille Saint-Saens suppressed his "Carnival of the Animals" shortly after its premiere, in 1886, disallowing any execution of the suite and publishing only one movement, "The Swan", in his lifetime. And while that movement is a welcome addition to pieces written for the cello, the whole "zoological fantasy" is a most successful example of humourously themed music in the classical repertory and has become, with full right, one of the composer's most popular works.

It is cast as a suite of 14 short pieces and was originally scored for, at first sight, rather small chamber group of flute, clarinet, two pianos, glass harmonica, xylophone, two violins, viola, cello and double bass, but is usually performed today with a full orchestra of strings, and with a glockenspiel substituting for the rare glass harmonica. But the brilliance of Saint-Saens' piece lies not only in the sheer number of surprisingly witty and charming depictions of the animals; the composer uses only the instruments he needs at the moment and draws exceptional music from different combinations of his compact "cast".

My choice recording here is a charming and warm account by the London Sinfonietta under the leadership of Charles Dutoit, the recording that introduced me to the work itself and which is one of my preferences for this particular piece.

I divided the movements into three separate uploads with the finale actually being separated from the rest of the tableaux, making for a well-placed recapitulation.

This is also my first upload where I tried playing with the possibilities of Windows Video Maker, thus I included several captions to mark the changes between the movements.

1. Introduction & Royal March of the Lion (strings and two pianos). The introduction begins with the pianos playing a bold tremolo, under which the strings enter with a stately theme (this section reminds one of the agitation one experiences when something stupendous is about to happen, in this situation, the appearance of a circus parade, perhaps). The pianos play a pair of scales going in opposite directions to conclude the first part of the movement. The pianos then introduce a march theme that they carry through most of the rest of the introduction. The strings provide the melody, with the pianos occasionally taking low runs of octaves or high ostinatos suggesting the roars of the lions. The movement ends with a fortissimo note from all the instruments used in this movement.

[N.S.: That piano opening sound familiar? Like maybe it’s where Randy Newman got the idea for the opening to his score for The Natural?]

2. Hens & Roosters (strings without double-bass, two pianos and clarinet). This movement is centered around a pecking theme played in the pianos and strings, quite reminiscent of chickens pecking at grain. The clarinet plays small solos above the rest of the players at intervals. In the middle of the section, you can almost see a rooster marching along the rows of hens who nervously run around him.

3. Wild Asses (two pianos). The animals depicted here are quite obviously running, an image induced by the constant, feverishly fast up-and-down motion of both pianos playing scales in octaves.

4. Tortoises (strings and piano). A slightly satirical movement which opens with a piano playing a pulsing triplet figure in the higher register. The strings then play a maddeningly slow (so slow, in fact, that it begins to sound like a dramatic lament) rendition of the famous "Can-Can" from Offenbach's "Orpheus".

5. The Elephant (double-bass and piano). This section is marked Allegro Pomposo, the perfect caricature for an elephant. The piano plays a waltz-like triplet figure while the bass hums the melody beneath it. Like the previous movement, this is also a musical joke: the thematic material is taken from Felix Mendelssohn's "Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Hector Berlioz's "Dance of the Silphs". The two themes were both originally written for high, lighter-toned instruments (flute and various other woodwinds, and violin, accordingly); the joke is that Saint-Saens moves this to the lowest and heaviest-sounding instrument in the orchestra, the double bass.

6. The Kangaroos (two pianos). The main figure here is a pattern of "hopping" fifths preceded by grace notes.

7. The Aquarium (strings without double-bass, two pianos, flute and glass harmonica). The melody is played by the flute, backed by the strings, on top of tumultuous, glissando like runs in the piano. The first piano plays a descending ten-on-one ostinato, while the second plays a six-on-one. These figures, plus the occasional glissando from the harmonica are evocative of a peaceful, dimly-lit aquarium.

Hope you'll enjoy :)!


Nos. 8-13: Christopher van Kampen

8. Characters with Long Ears (two violins). This is surely the least lyrical of the pieces: the violins alternate playing high, shrill screeches and low, buzzing notes (in the manner of a donkey's braying "hee-haw").

9. The cuckoo in the depths of the woods (two pianos and clarinet). The pianos play large, soft chords while the clarinet plays a single two-note ostinato, over and over; a C and an A flat, mimicking the call of a cuckoo bird.

10. Aviary (strings, piano and flute). The high strings take on a background role, providing a buzz in the background that is reminiscent of the background noise of a jungle. The cellos and basses play a pick up cadence to lead into most of the measures. The flute takes the part of the bird, with a trilling tune that spans much of its range. The pianos provide occasional ping and trills of other birds in the background. The movement ends very quietly after a long ascending scale from the flute.

11. Pianists [I’m unfamiliar with this species] (strings and two pianos). This movement is a glimpse of what few audiences ever get to see: the pianists practicing their scales. The scales of C, D flat, D and E flat are covered. Each one starts with a trill on the first and second note, then proceeds in scales with a few changes in the rhythm. Transitions between keys are accomplished with a blasting chord from all the instruments between scales. After the four scales, the key changes back to C, where the pianos play a trill-like pattern in thirds while the strings play a small part underneath. This movement is unusual in that the last three blasted chords do not resolve the piece, but rather lead into the next movement, with a pattern similar to the chords that lead from the second to the third movements of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.

12. Fossils (strings, two pianos, clarinet and xylophone). Here, Saint-Saens mimics his own Danse Macabre which makes heavy use of the glockenspiel to evoke the image of skeletons playing card games, the bones clacking together to the beat. The musical themes from Danse Macabre are also quoted; the glockenspiel and the violin play much of the melody, alternating with the piano and clarinet. The piano part is especially difficult here - octaves that jump in quick thirds. Allusions to "Ah! vous dirai-je, maman", the French nursery rhymes "Au clair de la lune" and "J'ai du bon tabac", the popular anthem "Partant pour la Syrie" as well as the aria "Una voce poco fa" can also be heard, to charming, though unexplained and unmotivated, musical quotes.

13. The Swan (two pianos and cello). This is by far the most famous movement of the suite, often performed solo and is used to showcase the interpretive skills of the cellist. The lushly romantic cello solo (which evokes the swan elegantly gliding over the water) is played over rippling sixteenths in one piano and rolled chords in the other (representing the swan's feet, hidden from view beneath the water, propelling it along).

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