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We name the greatest recordings of Saint-Saëns’s musical menagerie

6 March 2019 – 10:00am

Submitted by: Freya Parr

The best recordings of Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals

Saint-Saëns was a prodigy polymath from whom music flowed effortlessly. Symphonies, concertos, chamber works, opera – there was seemingly nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to. 1886 witnessed the single greatest success of his career, as his epic Third ‘Organ’ Symphony thundered its way around the globe.

That same year he composed a ‘grand zoological fantasy’ in 14 movements, scored for two pianos, string quartet, double bass, flute, clarinet, glockenspiel, xylophone, and glass harmonica/celesta, which sprang from the opposite end of the musical spectrum: The Carnival of the Animals.

Saint-Saëns was so worried about the harm this plaisanterie might do to his reputation as a serious composer, that after two private performances he placed it under lock and key where it remained until after his death. Only one movement survived this embargo: The Swan.

Güher & Süher Pekinel (piano)
Radio France PO/Marek Janowski (1990)
Warner Apex 25646 21252

With its hilarious send-ups – slow-motion can-can in ‘Tortoises’, Rossini’s Barber of Seville in ‘Fossils’, Berlioz’s Waltz of the Sylphs in ‘Elephant’ – and a rollicking finale that brings everyone back for a curtain call, a first-rate performance of The Carnival of the Animals should light up the musical sky.

And that is just what Marek Janowski, working alongside one of the world’s most celebrated piano duos, achieves here. By electing to gently cajole Saint-Saëns’s humorous asides rather than milking them for all their worth, this is more Hardy than Laurel, and none the worse for that.

In ‘Tortoises’, the Pekinel twins create a magically veiled sonority that creates the impression of being experienced through a heat wave, while ‘Aquarium’ – in which the glass harmonica takes a star turn – quietly glistens like  an iridescent jewel. The octave scales of ‘Pianists’ are played dead straight until the change to thirds – the real point of the joke – is signalled by a sudden relaxing of tempo and subtle change to a more ‘effortful’ sonority.

Strangely, the very opening is played as repeated notes rather than the customary tremolandos, but in the context of such a beguiling performance this is hardly a major distraction. Janowski and colleagues join in the proceedings with alacrity and the engineering combines ambient warmth and detail to perfection.

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