Fun and games at the National Liberal Club with Tyler Hay -Cristian Sandrin & Kettner Philharmonic players

Saint-Saëns specified in his will that his Carnival should be published posthumously. Following his death in December 1921 it was published by Durand in Paris in April 1922; the first public performance was given on 25 February 1922 in Paris It was rapturously received. Le Figaro reported:We cannot describe the cries of admiring joy let loose by an enthusiastic public. In the immense oeuvre of Camille Saint-Saëns, The Carnival of the Animals is certainly one of his magnificent masterpieces. From the first note to the last it is an uninterrupted outpouring of a spirit of the highest and noblest comedy. In every bar, at every point, there are unexpected and irresistible finds. Themes, whimsical ideas, instrumentation compete with buffoonery, grace and science. … When he likes to joke, the master never forgets that he is the master.

I could only be present for the second half of the concert as I had a previous engagement with another pianist friend in the Russian Ambassadors sumptuous residence in what we used to know a Millionaires Row in Kensington Gardens.

The National Liberal Club

But I was not prepared for the even more regal splendour of another age of the National Liberal Club for two of the star pianists from the Keyboard Trust stable:Tyler Hay and Cristian Sandrin.They too had kindly invited me to hear them play this amusing Zoological Fantasy.

The National Liberal Club (NLC) is a London a private members club was established by Gladstone in 1882 to provide club facilities for Liberal Party campaigners among the newly enlarged electorate following the Third Reform Act in 1884, and was envisioned as a more accessible version of a traditional London club.

The club’s Italianate building on the Embankment is the second-largest club-house built in London. (It was the largest ever at the time, but was superseded by the later Royal Automobile Club building completed in 1911.) Designed by Alfred Waterhouse it was completed in 1887.Its facilities include a dining room, a bar, function rooms, a billiards room, a music room with a splendid Steinway ‘D’ concert grand,a library and an outdoor riverside terrace.

Cristian Sandrin feeling at home in the NLC

The club’s foundation stone on the modern clubhouse was laid by Gladstone on 9 November 1884, when he declared “Speaking generally, I should say there could not be a less interesting occasion than the laying of the foundation-stone of a Club in London. For, after all, what are the Clubs of London? I am afraid little else than temples of luxury and ease. This, however, is a club of a very different character”, and envisioned the club as a popular institution for the mass electorate.However, another of the club’s founders, G.W.E.Russell, noted “We certainly never foresaw the palatial pile of terra-cotta and glazed tiles which now bears that name. Our modest object was to provide a central meeting-place for Metropolitan and provincial Liberals, where all the comforts of life should be attainable at what are called ‘popular prices'”, but added “at the least, we meant our Club to be a place of “ease” to the Radical toiler. But Gladstone insisted that it was to be a workshop dedicated to strenuous labour.”

The vast oven at the back of the David Lloyd George Room

Waterhouse’s design blended French, Gothic and Italianate elements, with heavy use of Victorian Leeds Burmantofts Pottery tilework manufactured by Wilcox and Co.And in the music room – concert hall -‘The David Lloyd George Room’- the Victorian tiles were very much part of the decor as was a vast oven of another age at the back.A fascinating venue for a concert dedicated to the centenary of the death of Camille Saint-Saens .

I was sorry to miss the ‘Danse bacchanale’,from Samson et Dalila and even more so the Second Piano concerto which I remember from the aristocratic performances of Artur Rubinstein just the other side of the Thames in the Royal Festival Hall .But I was glad to be able to hear two world premières both presumably with some connection to Saint Saens.

Simon Proctor’s beautifully mellifluous ‘Baacharolle’ it was easy to see the connection.

Simon Proctor with Ben Westlake

But Philip Dutton’s Méduses even though conducted brilliantly by the composer was less obvious.It is sometimes a good thing to play a contemporary work twice – if short- as the first time there can be a general shock wave but with the second comes real understanding .

Philip Dutton

Rubinstein realised that,when he gave the Spanish premiere of Ravel’s Valses Nobles which was greeted in true Latin manner by hisses and boos.Not deterred the great pianist played the entire work again as an encore!No one was sure if the silence that greeted it was shock or true understanding !

Ben Westlake spirited introduction .

But hats off to the conductor and master of ceremonies for including two contemporary composers in a concert d’epoque. The droll sense of humour with which Ben Westlake introduced the works was every bit as characterful and amusing as his expert conducting of these 14 animal episodes that make up this amazing zoological collection.

Yisha Xue the organiser with Ben Westlake of nearly 20 concerts since 2019 at the NLC

An ensemble of brilliant young musicians – two superb pianists at a magnificent Steinway encapsulated – or do I mean encaptured in a hall that must have been similar to where it was first performed in 1922.One could almost envisage the ghost of Saint-Saens looking on ,bemused,that this little ‘ divertissement’could have overshadowed all his more ‘serious’ compositions.The same fate as William Walton’s Facade where the cabaret appeal,however intellectually stimulating,is far more far reaching that the greatest of his Symphonic or Operatic output!There is the story too of Busoni’s wife being introduced as Mrs Bach-Busoni as her husbands vaste original output was overshadowed by his more accessible transcriptions of Bach!

Tyler Hay and CrIstian Sandrin joining the Kettner Philharmonic players in some magnificent playing of transcendental virtuosity and not a little exhilaration and enjoyment

I. Introduction and Royal March of the LionThe introduction begins with the pianists playing a bold tremolo, under which the strings enter with a stately theme. The pianists play a pair of glissandi going in opposite directions to conclude the first part of the movement.Introducing a march theme that they carry through most of the rest of the introduction.

II. Hens and Roosters Strings without cello and double bass, two pianists , with clarinet: this movement is centered around a pecking theme played by the pianists and strings, which is quite reminiscent of chickens pecking at grain. The clarinet plays a small solo above the strings. The piano plays a very fast theme based on the crowing of a rooster’s Cock-a-Doodle-Doo.

III. Hémiones (animaux véloces) (Wild Donkeys Swift Animals)
Two pianists the animals depicted here are quite obviously running, an image induced by the constant, feverishly fast up-and-down motion of both pianos playing figures in octaves. These are dziggetai, donkeys that come from Tibet and are known for their great speed.

IV. Tortoises Strings and piano: a satirical movement which opens with a piano playing a pulsing triplet figure in the higher register. The strings play a slow rendition of the famous “Can-can from Offenbach’s comic opera Orpheus in the Underworld.

Lon Fon Law the brilliant double bass Elephant

V. The Elephant Double bass and piano: this section is marked Allegro pomposo, the great caricature for an elephant. The piano plays a waltz-like triplet figure while the bass hums the melody beneath it. Like “Tortues,” this is also a musical joke—the thematic material is taken from the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Berlioz’s “Dance of the Sylphs” from The Damnatiin of Faust .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-Saëns moves this to the lowest and heaviest-sounding instrument in the orchestra, the double bass.

VI. Kangaroos Two pianists:the main figure here is a pattern of “hopping” chords (made up of triads in various positions) preceded by grace notes in the right hand. When the chords ascend, they quickly get faster and louder, and when the chords descend, they quickly get slower and softer.

VII. Aquarium

Part of the original manuscript score of “Aquarium”. The top staff was written for the (glass) “Harmonica”. Violins, viola, cello , two pianists flute, and glass harmonica.The melody is played by the flute, backed by the strings, and glass harmonica on top of tumultuous, glissando-like runs and arpeggios in pianos. The first piano plays a descending ten-on-one, and eight-on-one ostinato, in the style of the second of Chopin’s Studies , while the second plays a six-on-one. These figures, plus the occasional glissando from the glass harmonica towards the end and are evocative of a peaceful, dimly lit aquarium.

VIII. Characters with Long Ears Two violins: this is the shortest of all the movements. The violins alternate playing high, loud notes and low, buzzing ones (in the manner of a donkey’s braying “hee-haw”). Music critics have speculated that the movement is meant to compare music critics to braying donkeys.

IX. The Cuckoo in the Depths of the WoodsmTwo pianists and clarinet: the pianos play large, soft chords while the clarinet plays a single two-note ostinato; a C and an A♭, mimicking the call of a cuckoo bird. Saint-Saëns states in the original score that the clarinetist should be offstage

X. Aviary Strings, pianos 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 pickup 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 pings and trills of other birds in the background. The movement ends very quietly after a long ascending chromatic scale from the flute.

Superb pianists trying their best!

XI. Pianists Strings and two pianists this humorous movement (satirizing pianists as animals) is a glimpse of what few audiences ever get to see: the pianists practicing their finger exercises and scales. The scales of C, D♭, D and E♭ 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.

Title page to “Fossils” in the manuscript including drawing by the composer

XII. Fossils Strings, two pianists , clarinet, and xylophone: here, Saint-Saëns mimics his own composition, the Danse macabre, which makes heavy use of the xylophone to evoke the image of skeletons dancing, the bones clacking together to the beat. The musical themes from Danse macabre are also quoted; the xylophone and the violin play much of the melody, alternating with the piano and clarinet. Allusions to “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman” (better known as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star), the French nursery rhymes “Au clair de la lune”and “J’ai du bon tabac” (the second piano plays the same melody upside down [inversion]), the popular anthem “Partant pour La Syrie” as well as the aria “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville can also be heard. The musical joke in this movement, according to Leonard Bernstein the musical pieces quoted are the fossils of Saint-Saëns’s time. The movement ends with the xylophone theme first played by the xylophone and strings, but is soon taken over by almost all the instruments.

Thomas Vidal – superb swan

XIII. The Swan Two pianists and cello: a slowly moving cello melody (which evokes the swan elegantly gliding over the water) is played over rippling sixteenths in one piano and rolled chords in the other.

XIV. Finale Full ensemble: the finale opens on the same trills in the pianos as in the introduction,Many of the previous movements are quoted here from the introduction, the lion, the donkeys, hens, and kangaroos. The work ends with a series of six “Hee Haws” from the donkeys, as if to say that the donkey has the last laugh, before the final strong group of C major chords.

Our host Peter Whyte of the Kettner Society and sponsor of the NLC French Circle thanking the artists for their magnificent performances
Tyler Hay Cristian Sandrin

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