SAINT-SAËNS Piano Concertos Nos 4 & 5 (Descharmes)
Saint-Saëns’s five piano concertos are well catered for on disc. Every home should have at least one complete set of these life-enhancing works. For what it’s worth, my personal favourites are by Stephen Hough and Jeanne-Marie Darré (who had the benefit of studying all five with the composer himself; EMI, 7/97 – nla). There are, however, comparatively few discs pairing Concertos Nos 4 and 5, arguably the two best (the usual industry coupling is Nos 2 and 4). In fact, there are only two other examples currently available: Aldo Ciccolini on a terrific DVD (he also adds the Ravel G major) and Pascal Rogé (who finds room for Saint-Saëns’s Second Concerto as well).
All four of these are fine; but should you want just these two concertos, despite the relatively short playing time (55'21") I have no hesitation in warmly commending the newcomer, Vol 3 of all Saint-Saëns’s works for piano and orchestra recorded by these forces. There is real bulk to the orchestral sound, while Sean Lewis, producer, engineer and editor, has placed the piano (slightly too?) forward, allowing us to hear every detail of the virtuoso keyboard-writing, only occasionally compromising the dominance of the principal material. To my ears, it sounds like a two-microphone placement (like the old Mercury recordings), with no resorting to artificial highlighting of, for instance, woodwind solos.
It is true that Romain Descharmes and his genial conductor take a more relaxed view of allegro (be it allegro moderato/vivace/animato or molto) than either Hough or Darré. The first movements of their C minor Concerto (No 4), for example, last 11'16" and 11'23" respectively, while Descharmes clocks in at 12'27". All three agree, however, on the beautiful slow movement of the so-called Egyptian Concerto (around the 11'00" mark) and here the Naxos recording comes into its own, with disarmingly lovely playing from the soloist and his Malmö colleagues. This excellent release is completed by Dominic Wells’s first-rate booklet which, for those coming fresh to the music, usefully identifies the principal themes with accurate time codes.