One unsuspecting Amazon reviewer laments that these works by Saint-Saens are "not his best." Well, don't blame Saint-Saens! There are 2 discs of Saint-Saens chamber music from the Fine Arts Quartet on Naxos. And both have serious problems. The first release (String Quartets) is plagued by slow, ponderous tempos and a complete lack of sunlight or any sense of hope. As played here, they certainly do not sound like Saint-Saens at his best. Their follow-up disc, 2 years later, with pianist Cristina Ortiz, suffers from ruinous tuning issues and some less-than-polished playing. Let's take a look at each one individually.
Listening to the disc of String Quartets, I hear nothing that sounds remotely like Saint-Saens. It frequently sounds like Dvorak at his most depressing, or Wagner at his most oppressive. Tempos are a big part of the problem. The 1st Quartet's opening Allegro is nowhere near that marking. It is a ponderous Andante Maestoso. It sounds heavy and dreary beyond endurance. The 2nd movement Presto sounds cumbersome and they barely manage it at an Allegretto. It doesn't sound as if it's difficult music, but the 1st violin, in particular, has trouble with it and his playing sounds clunky and taxed. The Adagio, then, is a crawl through drying cement. And in the finale, they predictably give the "non troppo" marking priority over the Allegro indication.
There is an overwhelming feeling of dread and laborious oppression which consumes these readings of both quartets, making this a depressing listen. I am baffled why the Fine Arts Quartet would play these works this way. I'm pretty sure Saint-Saens did not intend his quartets to leave one feeling suicidal.
Turning to their second release, Cristina Ortiz joins them for the Piano Quartet in Bb and the Piano Quintet in a minor. Let's cut right to the chase: the piano on this recording is so badly out of tune, this CD is unlistenable. To make matters worse, the string players are tuned sharp to the piano, presumably because the piano itself is so badly out of tune they couldn't possibly tune to it. Every time the quartet is tacet or takes an accompaniment role, what you hear is an exposed, excruciatingly flat, badly out of tune piano taking up the tune. It literally sounds like a honky-tonk upright in a local bar (but without any of the fun!). Not only that, Cristina Ortiz sounds like she's sight- reading this music; she fluffs and fakes and pedals her way through several passages. And the Fine Arts Quartet sounds like a student group, at times. I am completely baffled this passed muster to any of those involved. It is unbelievable that the Producer/Editor/Engineer, Steven Epstein, could not hear what was going on while he was in charge at the controls. Even more amazing that the performers themselves could not hear they were not tuned to the piano, and that Ortiz was having a bad day, playing quite badly on a bad piano!
This is a relatively rare disaster for Naxos - actually both discs are. It is a great pity, as this is glorious music - a side of Saint-Saens which is not often heard. This music deserves a great recording. It certainly does not receive it here.