> SAINT-SAENS Piano Concertos Brilliant 99524 [TH]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Camille SAINT-SAENS (1835-1921)
The Complete 5 Piano Concertos

Gabriel Tacchino (piano)
Orchestra of Radio Luxembourg
Louis de Froment (conductor)
Symphony No.3 in C minor Op. 78 "Organ"

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Sergiu Comissiona (conductor)
Carnival of the Animals

Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra
Bystrich Rezucha (conductor)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99524 [3 Discs :77:00 ; 67:53 ; 64:21] Super budget


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Saint-Saëns has been described as the ‘French Mendelssohn’, and in some ways this is quite appropriate; both were phenomenal child prodigies, both composed music in an infectiously tuneful manner and both have often been dismissed in musical history as ‘lightweight’ and therefore of no real significance. Indeed, Saint-Saëns’ famous remark that he ‘composed as naturally as an apple tree produces apples’ highlights the problem for some; that his sheer technical facility extinguished any spark of originality. Thankfully that opinion has changed, due in no small part to the gramophone, and we are able to judge his work properly and in context, particularly the important cycle of concertos for his own instrument, the piano.

The resurgence of interest in these works as a whole has gathered pace recently, with Stephen Hough’s Hyperion set surely taking pride of place. There has also been another budget set from Angela Brownridge on ASV, and one should not overlook older but superbly recorded cycles from Rogé and Dutoit (Decca), Collard and Previn (EMI), Ciccolini and Baudo (also EMI), and the important historical set from Jeanne-Marie Darré (French EMI). In the face of such stiff competition (most of which are cheap ‘two-for-ones’) the present set is going to have a tough time finding its foothold in the market. For a start, Brilliant Classics have shot themselves in the foot somewhat, by making this a 3 disc set; most collectors will surely only want the concertos, and if they do want the oft-recorded couplings they are both available in much better performances elsewhere. So not only is any price advantage wiped out but the record buyer is possibly forced into unnecessary duplication.

As for the main items, these are a very patchy affair. They have the distinction of featuring the veteran French pianist and personal friend of Poulenc, Gabriel Tacchino. His glittering virtuosity is very much the best thing here, with the murderously cruel scalic runs and thundering octave work that abound in these pieces despatched with ease. If only the orchestral contribution was as distinguished; listen to the poor intonation in the lower strings in the evocative opening of Concerto No. 1’s slow movement, and also the less-than-well synchronised pizzicatos slightly later in the same movement. It all sounds very under-rehearsed and even Tacchino’s sure touch and feeling for the poetry in these pieces is severely undermined by the shallow recording quality. The only hint at the origins of these performances is a small note on the back of the case saying ‘Licensed from Vox’, so we have to assume they were made in the 60s; even so, the sound is unacceptably harsh and empty, with the upper register of the piano sounding brittle and tinny. Tacchino’s playing deserved better, and it is a measure of his performances (and of course the quality of the music itself) that occasionally the shortcomings are forgotten and one can revel in the zest and joyousness of it all. But turn to any of the other sets and one is in a different league; all the pianists have the requisite technique and artistic insight (listen to Hough in the opening of Concerto No.2– breathtaking!), and all are given more full-bodied and refined orchestral support and recording to match.

The third disc somewhat seals the fate of this set for me, with a pedestrian rendition of the famous "Organ" Symphony (no match for Dutoit, Tortelier or Munch) given only a marginally better recording. The "Carnival" is a non-starter, with the two (uncredited) pianists appearing to come from different venues, one ‘in-your-face’, and the other about three rooms away!

In the light of such competition all round, this release smacks a little of jumping on the Saint-Saëns concerto ’bandwagon’; there is no documentation whatsoever, no details of recording venues or dates, and all round one can only conclude that even the most impecunious collector can do better elsewhere.

Tony Haywood


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