When it comes to Saint-Saëns' piano concertante works this is one of
the most complete surveys available. Although the piano concertos are well
known, the third CD contains much fresh material of interest to enthusiasts
of this composer.
Charles Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1834 (and was
two years younger than Brahms). Incredibly, he performed on the piano before
he was five and it is said that he even composed his first work before he
was six! A Paris recital debut was made at the age of ten when he offered
to play any of Beethoven's 32 sonatas from memory as an encore to his concert
programme. Later in life he met and was encouraged by Bizet, Liszt and Rossini,
and was further influenced by Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Wagner. Berlioz was
one of the first composers to recognise Saint-Saëns' creative talent
and was equally enthusiastic regarding his playing, declaring him "an absolutely
shattering master-pianist". Such is the background to this remarkable man
who lived for 86 years. He died in 1921.
Saint-Saens' Piano Concertos were written for himself to perform over
a period of four decades. Each carries its own distinctive character using
an equally original format.
The First concerto was composed five years after his first symphony
and adheres to classical form. It has engaging charm, strong melodies and
good orchestral effects.
Of the Second concerto the bouncing Scherzo is well known. Opening
with a virtuosity performance from the soloist, this concerto is written
with particular originality. A magically sounding Presto of the third movement
engages the orchestra in an energetic tarantella to bring the work to its
The Third concerto was written a year later than the No.2 and lacks
the spontaneous originality which the previous concerto brought. However,
within its conventional framework there are a number of imaginative ideas.
The Fourth concerto has a similar layout to his 3rd (organ)
Symphony, not yet written. Two movements are divided into two sections, a
pattern similar to Liszt's Concerto No. 1 where two strong themes alternate.
A conclusion of grandeur is provided by a fanfare of brass.
The Fifth concerto, composed nearly 20 years later is known as the
Egyptian concerto because of the Arabian themes used in it. Its
Andante is based on a Nubian song Saint-Saëns heard on a trip
up the Nile. The concerto might be considered more of a tone poem because
of visual images of an oriental bazaar conjured up
The series of Piano concertos are well known through the many recordings
which have existed of them for many decades. EMI's Ciccolini LP series were
raved about when they hit the market in 1971; then came Collard under Previn,
and then Rogé. Each soloist brings their signature to the works and
many are enjoyable in different ways. This series by Gabriel Tacchino under
Louis de Froment recorded in 1974-9 has the previous recordings to compete
with, yet holds up well. The inclusion of an extra (third) CD with some of
Saint-Saëns' lesser works makes it worthy of serious consideration as
a library set.
The tempi of the concerti taken by Froment is on a par with the other recordings
and the piano is nicely balanced forward of the orchestra. I enjoyed Tacchino's
playing - his intimate manner, sensitivity to nuances of mood change and
clear articulation are endearing. His career took off when spotted by Karajan
who invited him to perform with the Berlin Phil, La Scala and at the Wiener
Festwochen. Since then his talents have allowed him to play with all the
It is worth mentioning something about the lesser known works:
The Rapsodie d'Auvergne, for Piano & Orchestra has a ponderous
opening, uncharacteristic of Saint-Saëns, and rather Brahms-like. It
slowly gathers momentum to provide us with a main subject of Austrian/Slovak
character. Elegant dance themes hold our focus until the finale takes a cyclic
path to where we started.
The Wedding Cake, Caprice for Piano and Orchestra, is the best
known of the pieces on this third disc. It is a bright and playful caprice/valse
with catchy phrases and a strong sense of rhythm. Written as early as 1886
it is amazingly modern in construction and Saint-Saëns seems to be at
his most fluent and relaxed whilst composing.
The Fantasie for Violin and Harp has five movements, Poco allegretto
- Allegro - Vivo grazioso -Largamente and Andante con moto. The
Poco allegretto is 'birdlike', reminiscent of Vaughan Williams perhaps,
but is not particularly well-crafted. It is some time before the composer
settles down to find purpose to his writing. Unmemorable passages tend to
focus on the virtuosity of the violin part. Articulate playing by Ricci,
sensitively complemented by Mildonian with neat fingerwork, provide us with
a good joint performance. Although the harp is well positioned, the close
'miking' of the violin errs towards a harsh tone and accentuates a spot of
A dreamy La muse et le poète, for Violin, Cello and
Orchestra, is languid and flows with peaceful ease, the violin always being
forwardly placed to respond with sweet sentiments. The cello echoes the opening
idea, and the soloists engage in a simultaneous development of their subjects.
The mood becomes agitated and the violin emerges from an orchestral tutti
with its original idea again which leads to a rhapsodic and virtuosic finale.
In contrast, Cyprès et Lauriers, for Organ and Orchestra
is soothing, searching and full of foreboding. (Cypres [Cypress tree] is
symbolic of death and grief, incidentally). The booklet does not say whether
Saint-Saëns wrote this piece in response to some tragedy in his life
but the mournful adagio for organ solo is particularly expressive. It is
reminiscent of Sullivan's In Memoriam, written 40 years earlier, yet
is not as inspired and lacks the orchestral craftsmanship which Sullivan
(or Gounod) would provide in such a circumstance. In fact, Saint-Saëns
uses little of orchestral participation throughout.
The piece, Morceau de concert, for Horn and Orchestra, carries
mixed moods and we are told 'is a hybrid of sonata, classical concerto and
theme and variation forms'. The opening by the horn is an exposition of two
main ideas. Rhythmic variations of the first theme then follow. The horn
brings in a new melody in a short final section (with brief 'shanty-style'
passage) which then returns to the opening subject and rapid virtuosic close.
An enjoyable Romance, for Horn and Orchestra, is in ternary
form, opening with a broad and delicate subject for the horn. The partnership
between horn and orchestra is close and perhaps this early Saint-Saëns'
work demonstrates a sincerity of composition for these forces.
These analogue recordings of the '70s are clear with no extraneous hiss or
The attractions of this box are reinforced by the usual Vox budget price.