Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No 2 – which recording is best?

Jeremy Nicholas
Friday, April 10, 2015

This concerto may seem little more than a shallow showpiece, but there’s a lot at stake for the soloist, as Jeremy Nicholas discovers via myriad recordings

This concerto was famously caricatured by pianist Sigismund Stojowski as ‘beginning like Bach and ending like Offenbach’. It has three movements – the solemn ‘Bach’ first movement (marked Andante sostenuto), a scherzo in Mendelssohnian spirit but with sonata-form structure, and a concluding ‘Offenbach’ tarantella (Presto) – and was written in the space of 17 days during spring 1868. The impetus for its composition was Saint-Saëns’s friend and frequent piano duet partner Anton Rubinstein. The Russian was visiting Paris and remarked that he’d never conducted an orchestra in the French capital and suggested putting on a concert. Saint-Saëns thought this a splendid idea and, having ascertained that the next available date at the Salle Pleyel was in three weeks’ time, undertook to write a concerto for the occasion.

He had been toying with such a project for some time, his First Piano Concerto having been written a decade earlier. While he was in the throes of composition, his pupil Gabriel Fauré showed him the score of a Tantum ergo he’d written as an exercise at the Ecole Niedermeyer. Saint-Saëns, so the story goes, gave it an approving glance, put the score in his pocket and said: ‘Give it to me. I can do something with that!’ It became the tranquil theme that arrives after the first orchestral tutti.

The first performance with the composer as soloist and Rubinstein conducting was on May 13, 1868. Saint-Saëns wrote: ‘Not having had the time to practise it sufficiently for performance I played very badly, and except for the scherzo, which was an immediate success, it did not go well. The general opinion was that the first part lacked coherence and the finale was a complete failure.’ Since then it has been one of Saint-Saëns’s most popular and frequently played works, and has been almost as frequently sniffed at by the higher-minded critics who view it as a shallow virtuoso showpiece. ‘Those who criticize Saint-Saëns for his frivolity,’ wrote the composer’s biographer James Harding, ‘should try one day to write music as airy and sure-footed as this. They would not find it easy.’

The composer’s stamp

The concerto is unusual, but by no means unique, in opening with the solo piano (Beethoven’s Fourth and Rachmaninov’s Second are, perhaps, the two other best-known examples), which plays an unbarred, toccata-like passage reminiscent of a Bach fantasy. In 1904, Saint-Saëns himself made a solo recording of the first movement – or rather a kind of pot-pourri of its themes, reducing about 10'30" of music to 3'47" by cutting from the end of letter A in the score to halfway through the cadenza and thence to the end (with further cuts). It’s interesting that the tempo that Saint-Saëns adopts for his initial Andante sostenuto is faster than any subsequent recording of this passage. That’s not to say it doesn’t work musically – but did he always intend it to be played at this speed? If so, only one pianist, Howard Shelley, comes close to emulating him. Significantly, none of the few who studied the work with Saint-Saëns and subsequently recorded the concerto did.

Such a one was Jeanne-Marie Darré (1905-99), who was guided in her interpretations of all five of Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos by the composer himself. Indeed, her career was launched when, in May 1926, she played them all in a single concert with the Lamoureux Orchestra conducted by Paul Paray. It was Paray (with the Orchestre Colonne) who conducted Darré, playing a Gaveau piano, in her first recording of the G minor Concerto in February 1948. The six Pathé sides (all first takes) are on Cascavelle VEL3066 with a good deal of surface swish but a finely judged balance between soloist and orchestra. In Darré’s playing, it seems to me, we hear the essence of the French style marked by sparkling clarity and finger independence, a light, lucid tone and an inner vitality – to which you can add Darré’s joie de vivre. These are qualities that this particular concerto requires from the soloist in spades.

The Darré–Paray recording is superb in every respect except, of course, for those whose ears can’t get past the sound of shellac. On balance, I marginally prefer Darré’s second (1955) version with the French National Radio Orchestra conducted by Louis Fourestier, with whom she recorded the other four Saint-Saëns concertos; this set, in the opinion of many, still contains the best version of each of the five. By then, Darré had been playing the G minor Concerto for well over 30 years, and her youthful, freshly minted performance is notable for its scrupulous attention to detail such as – a tiny point – in the introductory solo passage when the left hand crosses over the right hand to play three high octave Ds: Saint-Saëns clearly marks these to be arpeggiated; Darré is one of the few audibly to do so. There is a bottom E natural on the piano which is not equally voiced with its neighbours, and the woodwind reeds are unusually nasal, but these minor defects in no way detract from the unquenchable spirit behind the endeavour.

The Belgian Arthur De Greef (1862-1940) worked with Saint-Saëns around 1879 following his studies with Liszt. The G minor Concerto was one of his specialities. He recorded it twice, once in 1921 and again, this time electrically, in 1928 with the New Symphony Orchestra under Sir Landon Ronald. It is a remarkable document, as sonically it compares favourably with Darré over a quarter of a century later. The woodwind and brass have a more polished sound (in the ‘chorale’ section of the last movement, for instance) and the piano tone is rich and full. De Greef plays with a great deal more weight than Darré, makes a few minor changes to the text (omitting or adding arpeggiation, ending the occasional phrase with an unmarkedsforzando) and, in common with many others, adopts a slower tempo for the galumphing ‘waltz’ second subject of the second movement. (As Stephen Hough once said to me, ‘It doesn’t suddenly become a farmer’s boot. It’s still got the buckle on the pump.’) The horns make late entries at 0'52" in the same movement, and Pearl (not helped by De Greef) offers an unconvincing side join at 2'19". The finale sounds just a little tired – like a man in his late sixties on a long cross country run gamely heading for the finish and a nice hot shower.

A woman’s touch

Incidentally, the earliest recording of any part of the concerto I have come across, apart from the composer’s, is Landon Ronald conducting the 27-year-old Irene Scharrer in 1915 in an abridged performance of the Allegro scherzando. Another great British female pianist for whom this concerto became something of a signature piece was Moura Lympany. She too was 27 when she played the work at the First Night of the Proms in June 1943, conducted by Sir Henry Wood. Sadly, only the first and third movements have survived in playable condition, and though this is a treasurable document in decent-enough live period sound, I find it, along with Lympany’s two studio recordings, disappointingly matter-of-fact and lacking in character. That ‘waltz’ section, for instance: there may not be any change of tempo indicated, but there should surely be a punctuation mark, a more laid-back pulse for the idea to have its full effect; but Lympany just sails through from one episode to another. Her 1945 Decca account with Warwick Braithwaite is less desirable than her 1951 revisit with Jean Martinon on the same label but in far better sound. Both of them are available on hard-to-find CDs.

What a difference listening to the forgotten Danish pianist Victor Schiøler (1899-1967) in 1953. In fact, this is one of the most consistently successful of all recordings of this concerto. Schiøler shapes the music with the practised ease of a master story-teller: it’s judiciously paced, with exemplary textual clarity and light pedalling with a ravishing leggiero touch. The piano is placed forward: it’s always good to hear every note of the piano in a piano concerto. Schiøler equals and often surpasses Darré. The orchestra under Nikolai Malko is a notch up. Hearing straight afterwards Benno Moiseiwitsch and Basil Cameron in 1947, one acknowledges the same heart-easing spirit behind the performance but not, surprisingly, the accuracy. Listening to these venerable and once-popular plum label 78s is like putting on an old cardy with a few holes and stains: you’re fond of it, you’ll never part with it but you know there are smarter and better ones available.

Rubinstein’s renderings

Arthur Rubinstein, born just three years before Moiseiwitsch in 1887, had this concerto in his repertoire from the 1890s onwards. Saint-Saëns heard him play it in Paris in 1904. His three studio recordings are clearly important, but Rubinstein was not happy with the earliest, made in 1939, and refused its release. It wasn’t until 1998 that it saw the light of day. Bad woodwind intonation, slack ensemble, a tired, episodic scherzo, and a soloist who sounds out of sorts put it hors de combat. A live Carnegie Hall performance with Dimitri Mitropoulos in 1953 is on a completely different level. At 66, Rubinstein plays like a youngster. He’s on fire, and the New York Phil is keen not to be outdone. You can hear the audience’s collective smile at the end of the second movement. The finale is as exciting as any. I’d put this performance just ahead (but only just) of the one he gave in 1957 at the Royal Festival Hall with Rudolf Schwarz, only because in the latter he briefly comes off the rails in the tarantella’s trills during a finale that at 5'43" is one of the fastest of any discussed here. There is little to choose between Rubinstein’s revered 1958 recording with Alfred Wallenstein and the no less exemplary account with Eugene Ormandy in 1969. Tempi in all three movements are roughly similar. Both suffer from the same dry acoustic. Neither of them has the same electrifying impact as the Mitropoulos; nor has the performance with André Previn filmed in 1975 when Rubinstein was 88 and nearly blind, recorded (without an audience) in the Fairfield Halls, Croydon. The first movement is a full three minutes longer than under Wallenstein. No one looks as though they’re enjoying themselves much and it permeates the music-making. Interestingly, Rubinstein, interviewed at the age of 90 on the same DVD, claimed that his friend Raveltold him that he (Ravel) learnt all his secrets of orchestration from studying Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto.

Two other DVDs of the concerto are worth considering, though both have their drawbacks. Yefim Bronfman, with the Rolls-Royce accompaniment of the Berlin Philharmonic and the stolid Kurt Sanderling on the podium, makes the first movement sound like Brahms; its over-ponderous declamations seem to come from a different concerto from the sparkling scherzoand tarantella. Saint-Saëns, one feels, is not quite Sanderling’s tasse de thé. It’s a live 1992 concert, well filmed and in excellent sound. The great Nelson Freire is not as lucky with his film director in another live performance (1983) from Lugano, Switzerland. The orchestra, though perfectly adequate and directed with a great deal more enthusiasm by David Shallon, is not the Berlin Phil. Against these shortcomings is Freire’s superb, stylistically attuned execution of the solo part. You don’t even need the sound on: simply watching his hands silently and effortlessly dancing over the keyboard gives almost as much pleasure as hearing him play.

Earl Wild is another whose delight in the sheer exuberance of his own keyboard athleticism perfectly matches Saint-Saëns’s requirements. In his recording, made at Walthamstow Town Hall in 1967 under Massimo Freccia with the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra (which I think was the Royal Philharmonic moonlighting), the scherzo is witty, while the finale, more elegant than speedy, builds to a thrilling close. Made for Reader’s Digest with a magic touch by producer Charles Gerhardt, it’s now on Chesky. Howard Shelley, conducting from the piano, takes a similar approach (superbly recorded) – except in the first movement, which is a good 90 seconds fleeter than Wild and some of his more heavy-handed rivals. Personally, I find his approach invigorating and thoroughly convincing. If only the finale had that extra zing.

Malcolm Binns’s 1968 version with the LPO and Sir Alexander Gibson made for World Record Club (T672) is, sadly, no longer available. (When is someone going to reissue Binns’s recordings for this label?) Also not available, and only included in this survey out of documentary interest, is an Everest LP (X-911) of piano rolls made by Harold Bauer (1873-1951). Among these is the solo piano version of the Saint-Saëns produced by Bizet. As you would expect from a brilliant pianist, it’s a highly ingenious and effective transcription – the second and third movements are a real virtuoso workout. The only other recording of the Bizet version was made in 1988 by the late Nikolai Petrov (‘specially revised and amplified’ by him). Prepare to be astounded.

Less than perfect

Unfortunately, we shall have to say au revoir to Idil Biret conducted by James Loughran. The first movement is unexpectedly heavy-handed; for example, Biret plays rallentando theaccelerando-marked octave/chord sequence before the first tutti. Adieu, too, to Emil Gilels’s much-praised 1954 take with André Cluytens. A pity, because the scherzo and finale are scintillatingly light-fingered – among the very best, in fact; but the first movement seems to belong to another work, perhaps by Tchaikovsky, with Saint-Saëns’s agitato request bizarrely translated by Gilels as ‘laborious’.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, despite the attentive support of Charles Dutoit and the Suisse Romande Orchestra, is uncharacteristically charmless in the second and third movements, and fatally allows the tension to drop in the final pages. Yet the recorded sound earns this disc a top place, as does Thibaudet’s magical handling of the end of the first movement. Dutoit, this time with the RPO, is Pascal Rogé’s partner in the French pianist’s traversal of all five concertos recorded in 1986. Here is another No 2 with a first movement that everyone is determined to make as doom-laden as possible. You can almost always tell who’s opted for this approach by the way in which the final three crunching chords are played: Saint-Saëns was careful to write them as semiquavers, not as tenuto quaver beats, let alone crotchets (I’m sure the composer meant these final bars to be a mischievous test of Anton Rubinstein’s conducting skills). In the succeeding movements, Rogé is efficient and proficient – but not special.

Philippe Entremont in his 1976 set of all five concertos with Michel Plasson makes a thrilling accelerando in the octave/chord sequence in the opening solo of the Andante sostenuto. Unfortunately, the piano is stationed quite a distance from the microphone and, especially in passages that are forte and above, sounds unpleasantly brittle. Despite a fluent technique, Entremont over-pedals at times and makes too much of the scherzo’s ‘waltz’ theme. Vying for top place in terms of sound quality and recorded balance is Anna Malikova’s recording of the five concertos with Thomas Sanderling and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, whose part in proceedings is beautifully captured (Mark Hohn the recording engineer) – even the three cymbal crashes in the finale, marked pmf and f, are clearly graded. Malikova’s No 2 is sturdy, accurate and workmanlike, but it doesn’t excite.

Her tarantella is more an elegantly phrased allegro vivace than a scintillating Presto – which can’t be said of Stephen Hough’s finale, taken at a hair-raising speed and yet with more lucidly executed detail (in both piano and orchestra) than any other version, helped by Hyperion’s characteristically contained acoustic. In fact, Hough is almost unique in having the grace to follow the composer’s notations, dynamics and tempos to the letter throughout the whole concerto. If the final pages don’t have quite the tingle factor of Darré, this is a bracingly confident, idiomatic performance.

And so, finally, to the latest recording of Saint-Saëns’s Second Concerto, played by the youngest of all the above pianists. A casual listen ticks all the boxes. Benjamin Grosvenor has an innate understanding of what the work needs and clearly has the time of his life bringing it off. Does his playing have quite the same finesse and rhythmic security as the vastly more experienced Hough? No it doesn’t, but it’s nevertheless a very fine account that’s knocked off a top spot with several ‘that’ll do’ moments from the orchestra under conductor James Judd: some imprecise pizzicatos in the first movement (which ends with three staggered quaver beats), no appoggiaturas in the last two bars of the scherzo, and almost inaudible counterpoint from the lower strings at 4'14" . Grosvenor’s version, though, is worth having for his playing of the last movement alone – one of the most electrifying on disc, from the artfully accented first beats of the theme to his ecstatic delivery of the final page.

Top choice

Hough; CBSO / Oramo 

A must for every collection and unlikely ever to be bettered. The most consistently observed of all recordings of the Second Concerto. Gramophone review


Best historical

Schiøler; Danish St Rad SO / Malko 

If you wonder if a pianist you’ve never heard of can outclass the likes of Lympany and Moiseiwitsch in this work, then you must sample Victor Schiøler’s playing. 

Best ‘tingle factor’

Darré; French Nat Rad Orch / Fourestier 

Were this disc still available, it would have been my top choice. Not a perfect rendition but who cares when wit and élan are on offer in such abundance?

Best live performance

Rubinstein; New York PO / Mitropoulos 

The studio recordings with Wallenstein and Ormandy may be revered, but hear the difference when this great artist plays in front of a full house at Carnegie Hall. 

Selected discography

Date / Artists / Record company (review date)

1904 Saint-Saëns (excs) / Naxos 8 558107/10

1915 Scharrer; New SO / Ronald (2nd movt) / APR APR6010 (11/12)

1928 De Greef; New SO / Ronald / Pearl GEMMCD9974

1939 Rubinstein; Paris Cons Orch / Gaubert / Testament SBT1154 (2/99)

1943 Lympany; LPO / Wood (1st & 3rd movts) / Somm SOMMCD076

1945 Lympany; National SO / Braithwaite / Pristine PASC058 (10/06)

1947 Moiseiwitsch; Philh Orch / Cameron / APR APR5529; Naxos 8 110683

1948 Darré; Orch Colonne / Paray / Cascavelle VEL3066

1951 Lympany; LPO / Martinon / Decca 475 7209DC9

1953 Rubinstein; New York PO / Mitropoulos / Guild GHCD2355

1953 Schiøler; Danish St Rad SO / Malko / Danacord DACOCD491/2

1954 Gilels; Paris Cons Orch / Cluytens / Testament SBT1029 (2/94); EMI 345819-2; 629511-2

1955 Darré; French Nat Rad Orch / Fourestier / EMI 569470-2 (7/97 – nla)

1957 Rubinstein; BBC SO / R Schwarz / BBC Legends BBCL4216-2 (11/07)

1958 Rubinstein; Sym of the Air / Wallenstein / RCA 09026 61496-2 (4/93)

1967 Wild; RCA Victor SO / Freccia / Chesky CHESKY-CD50

1969 Rubinstein; Philadelphia Orch / Ormandy / RCA 09026 63070-2 (10/87R)

1975 Rubinstein; LSO / Previn / DG 073 4195GH

1976 Entremont; Toulouse Capitole Orch / Plasson / Newton Classics 8802144 (5/90R)

1983 Freire; Svizzera Italiana Orch / Shallon / VAI VAIDVD4409

1986 Rogé; RPO / Dutoit / Decca 443 8652DF2 (12/86R)

1988 Biret; Philh Orch / Loughran / Naxos 8 550334 (12/90); 8 553277

1988 Petrov (arr Bizet) / Olympia MKM081

1992 Bronfman; BPO / K Sanderling / EuroArts 205 7638 (12/10)

2000 Hough; CBSO / Oramo / Hyperion CDA67331/2 (11/01)

2004 Malikova; Cologne Rad SO / T Sanderling / Audite AUDITE91 650

2007 Thibaudet; Suisse Romande Orch / Dutoit / Decca 475 8764DH (12/07)

2008 Shelley; Op North Orch / Chandos CHAN10509 (5/09)

2012 Grosvenor; RLPO / Judd / Decca 478 3527DH (11/12)

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Gramophone.

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