SAINT-SAËNS Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2
The striking originality of the D major First Concerto, its exuberant outer movements bursting with youthful zest and its hauntingly atmospheric second movement with its prescient passages of Ravel, make it an unjustly neglected work that deserves far more attention from pianists and conductors. It was written when Saint-Saëns was in his early twenties, qualifying – late as this was in 1858 – as the earliest piano concerto written by a major French composer. </p>
<p>Were I hearing the work for the first time through this recording, I would think it money well spent: a young(ish) French pianist (<i>b</i>1980) with a polished technique and an innate affinity with his countryman’s idiom, well recorded, with first-class accompaniment from the genial Marc Soustrot. It is only when you turn to certain other versions that the reservations set in. My benchmarks are Hough on Hyperion and Darré on EMI (if you can track it down). Both adopt brisker tempos, especially Darré in the finale who, more than a minute faster than Descharmes, embraces Saint-Saëns’s <i>con fuoco</i> with enthusiasm. Everywhere, everything burns just that bit more brightly.</p>
<p>The same slight reticence is on show in the popular G minor Second Concerto. Saint-Saëns’s writing is acutely and carefully observed, the Scherzo and <i>Presto</i> movements are given more breathing space and, with that, a little more dignity than on some rival versions. It is a convincing alternative view, but not one I find as compelling as Benjamin Grosvenor’s (Decca).</p>
<p>The only other version of No 1 currently available on a single disc comes from Norika Ogawa on BIS. She also couples it with No 2 but has the Suite in D for orchestra, Op 49, as the filler. Otherwise you must avail yourself of a set of all five concertos. So it may be Naxos’s attractive price and the unusual filler of the <i>Allegro appassionato</i> that are the determining factors, even if the disc does last a relatively short 58'22".