Saint-Saëns - Piano Concertos Nos 1-5 etc.
Stephen Hough pf City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo
Hyperion CDA67331/2 Buy now
(155’ · DDD)
Including: Piano Concertos Nos 1-5. Wedding Cake, Op 76. Rapsodie d’Auvergne, Op 73. Africa, Op 89. Allegro appassionato, Op 70
If Saint-Saëns’s idiom once answered – and maybe still does – to qualities fundamental to the French musical character, it must be said straight away that Hough sounds the complete insider. He commands the range of the big statements, whatever their character, as well as sparkle and panache, a sense of drama and seemingly inexhaustible stamina; and he can charm. Yet perhaps most delightful is the lightness and clarity of his decorative playing. It’s a bonus for the virtuoso passages not to sound hectic or overblown – for Saint-Saëns, virtuosity always had an expressive potential. There’s an air of manufacture about the writing sometimes, certainly, but as Hough knows, there must be nothing mechanical in its delivery. Sweeping across the keyboard, dipping and soaring through the teeming notes, he flies like a bird. He manages to convey what makes these pieces tick: fine workmanship, fantasy, colour, and the various ways Saint-Saëns was so good at combining piano and orchestra. The orchestra has plenty to do. These scores are textbooks of lean but firm orchestration from which at least one major French composer learnt (Ravel, another eclectic, who must have seen the ‘old bear’ as a kindred spirit). The days are past when the CBSO under Louis Frémaux was considered Britain’s ‘French’ orchestra, but with Sakari Oramo it does splendidly here, playing alertly with its inspiring soloist as he does with it (another plus). The recording balances are fine, with lovely piano sound and plenty of orchestral detail in natural-sounding perspectives.