Despite the success of his opera "Samson et Dalilah," still in the current repertory, the first thing one thinks of about Saint-Saens is not his vocal music. Indeed, you may scour the account of his life in the Thompson Encyclopedia without finding one reference to his song output. Operas, yes; he composed a dozen, several of which were produced during his lifetime, though only "Samson" endures. Organ, orchestral, chamber, piano music all receive their due; but no mention of his very considerable song oeuvre, whose merit deserves to be recognized.
So once again one must be grateful to Newport Classic, and its adventuresome star, basso George Ostendorf, for putting together a program of essentially unknown songs that show off the cultivated and talented Saint-Saens as graceful, urbane and charmingly melodic. Sometimes the relentless melodism becomes a little bland, but often these songs rise to fiery heights.All in all, this varied collection of songs would make a good companion for a quiet evening, or even for a romantic interlude. Much of the music suggests the antecedents of Gabriel Faure, Saint-Saens' pupil at the Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris.
Ostendorf and the estimable tenor John Aler make commendable collaborators, since both have the loveliest of tones and both are master recitalists. They deliver an arresting program of sensibility and artistic merit, ably and sympathetically accompanied by John Van Buskirk.
They begin with pastoral duets of love, and conclude with a pleasant enough but rather colorless two-part celebration of "Les Cygnes" (a bird Saint-Saens apparently revered).
In "Tristesse" Ostendorf expresses grief with melancholy French restraint, and Aler's `La Mort d'Ophelie' is gracefully lyric, underlaid by a little whirring piano motif that suggests madness.
Moments of surpressed emotion, and love's exaltation in surprisingly passionate climaxes, alternate in these songs. There are lively songs as well, and even the humorous little "Suzette et Suzon," in which the bass can't make up his mind between two charmers.
There are spring songs, notably "Peut-etre" in which the tenor exults over a love he can scarcely believe has come to him. Saint-Saens' foreign travels are reflected in the Spanish lilt of "Guitares et mandolines," the gypsy accent of "Bolero," and a relaxed Venetian barcarolle.
Saint-Saens set few major poets, seeming to prefer the intimate individual expression of the minor voices. Yet he did almost worship Victor Hugo, who brought out the most expressive and evocative in him. Perhaps the best of the Hugo settings on this disc is "Chant de ceux qui vont sur mer," a farewell to the fatherland dedicated to Pauline Viardot, and stirringly sung by Aler.
Admirers of art song may profitably find a place on their shelves for these songs, which add some unfamiliar facets to the jewel-like French repertoire.