SAINT-SAËNS Piano Concerto No 3
I was a bit sniffy about this team’s First and Second Concertos (6/17), which I felt were perfectly good if you hadn’t already got the leading contenders – Stephen Hough or Jean-Marie Darré (EMI) in both, or Benjamin Grosvenor if you just wanted No 2. The same reservations apply to this volume, but slightly less so.
Saint-Saëns’s Third Concerto is, like the First, woefully underplayed and underrated. It is in the traditional three-movement fast-slow-fast format but, within that, what a wealth of originality is found, beginning with the succession of rippling piano arpeggios which opens the first movement. These give way to a subject that, as Dominic Wells observes in his succinct and informative booklet, ‘bears more than a passing resemblance to the opening theme of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony’. Then turn to the harmonically adventurous second movement and its ambiguous tonality, and the boisterous pyrotechnics of the finale. What is there not to like?
There’s no avoiding the fact that Hough and Darré revel in Saint-Saëns’s pianistic joie de vivre more overtly than Romain Descharmes. As in the earlier volume, his tempos are markedly slower – a definite minus in the finale – and yet certain aspects of the music are experienced more powerfully than on either Hough or Darré’s recordings. Try the passage (marked marcatissimo) from 0'39" to 1'00" at the beginning of the third movement.
Again in Africa, one of the composer’s most colourful creations (rarely, if ever, heard in concert, of course), Descharmes can sound flat-footed compared with the incomparable Hough – but the climax of the piece (at 7'01", where Saint-Saëns introduces a theme based on a Tunisian folk tune) is carried off with a nonchalant swagger that I found irresistible, the triangle adding a curious buzzing effect. The warmth and depth of the orchestral contribution and Marc Soustrot’s eye for detail are significant bonuses and, moreover, I marginally prefer the recorded sound and ambience to the Hough versions – which, however, I would never desert. So, overall, less to be sniffy about than the previous volume.