The Gramophone Choice
Piano Concertos Nos 1-5
Coupled with Wedding Cake, Op 76. Rapsodie d’Auvergne, Op 73. Africa, Op 89. Allegro appassionato, Op 70
Stephen Hough pf City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo
Hyperion CDA67331/2 (155' · DDD). Buy from Amazon
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.
Piano Concerto No 4***.
Coupled with Etude en forme de valse, Op 52 No 6 Franck Symphonic Variations* Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand**
Alfred Cortot pf *London Philharmonic Orchestra / Landon Ronald; **orchestra, ***Paris Conservatoire Orchestra / Charles Munch
Naxos Historical 8 110613 (60‘ · ADD). Buy from Amazon
Here are performances of a timeless vitality and validity. The exception is the Ravel Concerto, which is wildly approximate and confused. Elsewhere, though, there’s a super-abundance of wit and charm – of Cortot at his most beguiling. His capacity to be free and ecstatic yet bracingly unsentimental was one of his most exhilarating qualities, and his rubato at the start of the Saint-Saëns makes modern rivals pale in comparison. At 8'12" (dolce tranquillo legato) there’s a classic instance of the cantabile for which he was celebrated, and in the final pages of the same movement an inimitably limpid and delicate poetry.
Again, in the central Allegro vivace, his famous or infamous scrambles and skirmishes are never at the expense of the music’s innate elegance and style, and who else has spun off the Concerto’s closing cascades with such glitter and aplomb? Cortot’s playing may not have been note-perfect but there’s no doubt that he was every inch the virtuoso.
As an encore, there’s Saint-Saëns’s Etude en forme de valse, and while the 1931 recording is by no means the equal of the legendary 1919 disc, a performance that prompted Horowitz’s envy, it’s gloriously alive with Cortot’s verve and magic. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers are exceptional and all lovers of past but ever-present greatness will want this second and final Naxos volume of Cortot’s sadly few concerto recordings.