Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concertos

0 of 5 stars

Piano Concerto No.1 in D, Op.17
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.22
Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat, Op.29
Piano Concerto No.4 in C minor, Op.44
Piano Concerto No.5 in F, Op.103
Africa, Op.89
Allegro appassionato, Op.79
Rapsodie d’Auvergne, Op.73
Wedding Cake (Valse-Caprice for piano and strings), Op.76

Stephen Hough (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: April 2002
CDA 67331/2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 35 minutes

Stephen Hough’s third foray into Hyperion’s ever-expanding musical excavation into the world of 19th-century concertante repertoire – “The Romantic Piano Concerto” series – has produced, with Volume 27, another out-right winner. Following the Gramophone Record of the Year (1996) Scharwenka/Sauer coupling (No.11 – CDA66790) and the Mendelssohn Concertos (No.17 – CDA66969), Hough stays loyal to his orchestral partner – the CBSO – and simply swaps conductor Lawrence Foster for the CBSO’s Music Director, Sakari Oramo.

Without doubt this Saint-Saëns set is another feather in Oramo’s cap, even though the lion’s share of the praise will of course go to Stephen Hough. The orchestral playing is first rate, at speeds that constantly shave minutes off rivals’ performances. Curiously, even though Saint-Saëns is atrociously represented in the catalogue (apart from the ’Organ’ Symphony (No.3), Carnival of the Animals, Samson and Dalila and, perhaps, the Third Violin Concerto), there are three rival sets for the piano concertos: Aldo Ciccolini with Serge Baudo and Orchestre de Paris, recorded in 1970, and available on a Rouge et Noir twofer (EMI CMS 7 69443 2); Pascal Rogé with Charles Dutoit (and three London orchestras: the LPO, RPO and Philharmonia) from a decade later (Decca 443-865-2); and Jean-Philippe Collard and André Previn in his Royal Philharmonic days (EMI CZS 5 73356 2).Ciccolini and Rogé only include the concertos, splitting the Third between the two discs, while Collard and Previn squeeze the Fourth onto the first disc with numbers 1 & 2, leaving space for Wedding Cake and Africa on the second disc. All these rivals are half the price of the Hough, but it is the non-French pianist that seems to eke out the most frolics and beauty in these works, while not skimping on the necessary power (for example in the outer movements of the Second concerto) when required.

And these are delightful works, more fun than most of the Germanic war-horses, especially when performed with such winning humour. The fascinating thing is that each concerto is distinctly individual – from the opening echoing horn calls of the irrepressible First Concerto (said to have been inspired by a picnic in Fontainebleau Forest), to the stormy minor-key Second Concerto, which starts off with solo piano musing in Bachian mode before an unused theme that Saint-Saëns took – with permission – for a setting of the ’Tantum Ergo’ by his pupil, Gabriel Fauré). The massive orchestral chords submit the music to a violent tempest, contrasted with the flighty ’Scherzo’ already mentioned. Saint-Saëns also broke convention in this work by having each succeeding movement faster than the last, in a structured accelerando. The Third, premièred in Leipzig the following year (1869) and causing a riot because of the harmonic daring in its slow movement, is much lighter in tone than the Second, while the Fourth (1875) is cast in two movements, but encompassing four sections, in much the same way his Third Symphony would eleven years later.The Fifth, sometimes known as the ’Egyptian’ because it was written in Luxor on holiday and quotes a Nubian love song he heard a Nile boatman sing, comes from two decades later, written for his golden jubilee concert, celebrating fifty years on the concert platform, but seems – in its carefree attitude and delicate orchestral accompaniment – to look forward to the wit and musical sleights-of-hand of Poulenc and his “Les Six” compatriots.

In one sense the inclusion of Saint-Saëns in a “romantic” concerto series is odd: he was not romantic in the way his German colleagues were, despite his great admiration for, and friendship with Hungarian-born Liszt who played a central role in German musical life while at Weimar. Like Bartók and Prokofiev after him, Saint-Saëns had the ability to create self-contained musical worlds in each of his concertos, which are as independent on outside emotions as neo-classical works of the twentieth-century would be. Saint-Saëns became a musical reactionary and in his latter years (he lived to be 86) was a devoted critic of the modernisms of Debussy and Stravinsky, but his own music was never bound by convention and the forty-year span of his piano concertos offers a rich introduction to his instinctive and irrepressible musical styles.

It goes without saying that Stephen Hough – long a champion of these works, as well as Saint-Saëns’s cadenzas for Mozart’s concertos – has the full measure of the composer’s mercurial moods, as well as the technical ability to carry them off. Is it too much to ask for a moratorium on Beethoven’s five piano concertos?Whenever one would normally be programmed, it could be substituted by the corresponding Saint-Saëns concerto – indeed, even the Fifth has a nickname: read ‘Egyptian’ for ‘Emperor’ – and then perhaps, at last, Saint-Saëns might belatedly get the respect that is his due.

As to the four occasional pieces, the most substantial – and probably best known – is Africa, using a Tunisian folk tune and also completed in Cairo (some five years before the Fifth Concerto). But my favourite by a long chalk is Rapsodie d’Auvergne – admittedly a world away from the delicacy of Canteloube’s songs – but the movement to listen to if you have any doubts about buying this release. Satisfaction guaranteed!

1 thought on “Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concertos”

  1. Strange that Saint-Saens’ piano concertos are not performed more often in concert halls (except for the Second, which is probably overplayed). The third movement of the First is remarkable in its structure. The composer teases us with excerpts of the main theme (almost as if turning it over in his mind, wondering how to finish it); finally completing it at the end, followed by those four triumphant chords in the orchestra (which a perceptive listener may recall from much earlier in the movement). Saint-Saens must have had a keen sense of humor. Brilliant!

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