SAINT-SAËNS - Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra
Cast your eye over the listings of these concertos in the classical catalogue and you’ll find half a column of versions of No 2‚ including three by Rubinstein and a celebrated live recording by Emil Gilels – while representation of the other four is so sparse as to suggest their days are over. No 4‚ once the rival to No 2 in popularity‚ does have Cortot’s glorious recording of 1935 with Charles Munch to speak for it‚ but when do you ever hear it in concerts now? Richter’s name pops up in No 5‚ in a 1952 account with Kondrashin and a Moscow youth orchestra; worth investigating‚ of course‚ but cope with Melodiya’s vintage sound as best you may. As to No 1 and No 3‚ they have faded almost to vanishing point.
Of the three complete sets of the concertos that are still available‚ all by French pianists‚ only JeanPhilippe Collard’s intégrale is digital. Pascal Rogé’s is 20 years old. The other‚ made in the mid1950s and now of near-legendary status‚ is by Jeanne-Marie Darré‚ who was a woodpecker of the old French school with an amazing finger technique and musicianship and temperament to match. On learning these pieces as a girl she took them to the ‘vieil ours’ himself (he died in 1921); she is a must-hear.
Enough background: forward Stephen Hough‚ whose arrival is timely. His set is well recorded and presented‚ and conductor and orchestra are with him in a proper collaboration. It includes moreover the four shorter solo pieces with orchestra‚ which are characteristically pleasing compositions in a genre the composer liked to cultivate and of which Africa and the Rapsodie d’Auvergne are especially worth having. If Saint-Saëns’s idiom once answered – and maybe still does – to qualities fundamental to the French musical character‚ it must straight away be said that Hough sounds the complete insider. My first impression of coolness and a slight reserve was soon banished by a recognition that his voice is ideally pitched. 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: even when subservient to the orchestra one notices that every note of his roulades and filigree comes up glistening. And it is a bonus not to have the virtuoso passages sounding hectic or overblown – for Saint-Saëns‚ virtuosity always had an expressive potential. There is an air of manufacture about the writing sometimes‚ certainly‚ but as Hough knows‚ there must be nothing mechanical in the delivery of it. All of it tells. Sweeping across the keyboard‚ dipping and soaring through the teaming notes‚ he flies like a bird.
Trying to single out a quality which makes him particularly admirable‚ I think it should be his acuteness of ear in all matters relating to sonority and balance. He conveys 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. Gounod remarked that his younger colleague ‘played with and made light of the orchestra as of the pianoforte’‚ and these scores are textbooks of lean but firm orchestration from which at least one major French composer learned (Ravel‚ another eclectic‚ who must have seen the ‘old bear’ as a kindred spirit and whose G major Piano Concerto might surely not have been written the way it is without the example of Saint-Saëns’s achievements). 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). It is a partnership which often goes way beyond the punctual and the musicianly and in the picturepostcard orientalism of the ‘Egyptian’ Fifth Concerto achieves a level of exceptional vivacity and definition. The recording balances are fine‚ with lovely piano sound and plenty of orchestral detail in natural-sounding perspectives. The piano sonority is a tad more recessed in the Alpine mists of the Third Concerto‚ perhaps not inappropriately.
There is more personal music in these concertos and the four smaller pieces than I had remembered and these performances have brought it up as fresh as paint. Irreproachably elegant on the surface – as Saint-Saëns once said of Gounod – the music is all the better for sometimes disclosing a basic vulgarity‚ as if a streak of plebeian blood were there to act as a safeguard against the nervous instability inherent in good breeding. It is shot through not only with good tunes but with touches of the vernacular and the theatrical. It is never insipid and rarely banal. This seems to me a spiffing set and pleasurable discoveries and rediscoveries await.