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Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 (1875)
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor, Op. 44 (1875)
Joyce Hatto, piano
National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by René Köhler
Recorded at the Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, United Kingdom, March 1997 (Tchaikovsky) and January 1999 (Saint-Saëns)

This is an unexpected and probably unique coupling, but a glance at the dates shows just how logical it actually is. Not only were the composers roughly contemporary – allowing for Tchaikovsky’s lamentably early demise – but the two concertos date from the same year. Saint-Saëns was French by birth, but his music is closer to Liszt than it is to his contemporary Bizet, or to later French composers such as Ravel or Debussy. The French sensibility is very different from the Russian, however, and this disc provides us with the intriguing possibility of comparing the two.

Given decent performances this would be reason enough to recommend this disc. In fact both performances are sensational and merit the highest recommendation.

The fourth of Saint-Saëns’ five piano concertos opens with a hesitant little theme which quite clearly comes from the same pen as the well known "Organ" symphony of eleven years later. Both the piano writing and especially the constantly evolving transformation of thematic material are reminiscent of Liszt, even if the demonic side of that composer is largely absent in favour of a certain aloof elegance. A slower section in this first movement is based on a beautiful and tranquil theme which is transformed with great ingenuity and much originality in piano and orchestral writing. Both the theme and the way the composer deals with it again recall the Third Symphony, and there is even, in some of the piano writing towards the peaceful close, an echo of Rachmaninov. The second movement is in three sections, the first lively, the second short and slower with a cadenza, passing without a break to the rousing final section based on a tune you’ll be whistling for the rest of the day and which, in line with the composer’s practice, grows out of previously presented material.

Collectors who have been following here the reviews of Joyce Hatto’s ongoing concerto and solo recital series on Concert Artist (and hopefully buying the discs afterwards) will know what to expect. Her playing in this concerto by Saint-Saëns is of the utmost technical assurance allied to great musicality and integrity. Nothing is done for effect, and when the playing is exciting for the listener, and it frequently is, the excitement seems to stem naturally from the music in a most uncanny way. The orchestral playing is superb, the brass section wonderfully sonorous at one point, and René Köhler, as ever in this series of discs, is a most able and attentive accompanist.

I can’t think of a better way to get to know the Saint-Saëns concerto, and if that weren’t enough it is coupled with one of the most compelling Tchaikovsky firsts I’ve ever heard. This is a reading which takes no prisoners, and the listener either submits to it or runs away. Have the soloist’s opening chords ever sounded quite so massive as they do here? And just listen to her extraordinarily arresting way with the immediate restatement of the opening theme and subsequent short cadenza! One of the hallmarks of Joyce Hatto’s playing in general is fidelity to the score, yet she is not afraid to go against the composer’s markings when it suits her. Thus the first subject proper, though it fully respects the composer’s asked for allegro con spirito, it is hardly piano, but any criticism tends to be silenced by the remarkable conviction of the playing. This is very muscular Tchaikovsky, passionate but never over-inflated and without the slightest trace of bombast. Some might find it relentless, but it demands to be heard. The pages leading to the main first movement cadenza, which is itself played at white heat, are astonishing. A couple more piano markings are ignored as the team fires its way to the end of the movement, and indeed dynamic markings in general, in the orchestra too, are turned up a notch for much of the time, but this is all of a piece with the reading of this movement as a colossal struggle, drama, tragedy, where any respite is cruelly curtailed. In this view the soloist and conductor are totally at one.

The second movement comes as the greatest possible contrast after this, perhaps a little slow for an andantino, but again the listener has the feeling that interpretative decisions have been taken for purely musical reasons and not, as is too often the case in this above all concertos, for the aggrandisement of the players. So perfectly blended are the two cellos in the famous restatement of the main theme that we might think there is only one of them playing, and is there any other reading of this work which better respects the tempo indication of the faster section, prestissimo, or more fully demonstrates that the title of the folk song on which it is based is Il faut s’amuser, danser et rire?

The reading of the finale is as gripping as that of the opening movement. Listening first without a score I was surprised by the number of tempo changes, but in fact they are all marked and observed by these players. Listen, for example, to the second subject, relaxed in tempo when first announced by the violins, but suddenly faster when taken over by the soloist. I’ve never heard it done quite this way, but it’s what the composer asks for.

I actually wouldn’t want to hear Tchaikovsky 1 like this every time – it’s too exhausting for one thing – and both Argerich (with Abbado) and Richter in his famous recording with Karajan offer a calmer evening, strange though it may seem. But Joyce Hatto’s tumultuous reading should be in every collection.

William Hedley

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