The musical style of Saint-Saëns tended in the
direction of elegance, wit and sophistication rather than towards either
modernism or emotional turbulence.
With his creative gifts of fluent and elegant invention,
skilful craftsmanship and well-balanced orchestration, Saint-Saëns
was possessed of a rare talent. By the age of twelve it seems he could
play all the Beethoven piano sonatas from memory, and soon after he
had become established in Parisian musical life, Berlioz said of him:
'He lacks nothing except inexperience.'
The sheer facility which lies behind the music is palpable
when one listens to these performances. Angela Brownridge is a talented
pianist and she revels in the opportunities these concertos give her.
One of the other advantages of this set is that it generously includes
so much music on just two advantageously priced CDs. No composer of
the romantic era showed more thorough and consistent interest in the
concerto than Saint- Saëns, and to have all his piano-and-orchestra
works on just two discs is an outstanding bargain.
Not all the music is well known. Performances and recordings
of the Piano Concerto No. 2 probably outstrip all those of the other
concertos and single-movement pieces combined. So the Concerto No. 2
is a sensible place to begin appraising these performances. Tempi are
admirably chosen, rhythms attractively pointed, and only in the finale
are there misgivings. In this fiendishly demanding tarantella, Brownridge
does not achieve quite the élan of Stephen Hough (Hyperion) or
Pascal Rogé (Decca), although her rendition is successful enough
on its own terms.
The other concertos come over particularly freshly,
which is only right since they are so well written and so little known.
Perhaps the Fourth is the most distinctive of them, cast in two large
and varied movements, but they all have much to offer the discerning
listener, even the First Concerto, composed in 1858 when Saint- Saëns
was just 23.
The Fifth Concerto also has much appeal in this performance,
which really brings out the strange and evocative exoticism which Saint-Saëns
made his priority. He actually wrote the music in Egypt, and was at
pains to describe it as 'Egyptian' on the title page. The recorded sound
is bright and clear, and the Hallé Orchestra can be heard to
splendid effect here. Full marks to both the ASV recording engineers
and to the conductor, Paul Murphy.
The attractive shorter items are well done too, although
again Hough with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has even
greater panache. In sum, it is probably worth investigating the Hyperion
discs if money is no object; but in any case this ASV set will give
This music reminds us that Saint-Saëns left an
artistic credo which is most revealing: 'For me, art is form. Expression
and passion seduce the amateur above all; for the artist it is different.
An artist who is not fully satisfied by elegant lines, harmonious colours
and beautiful harmonic progressions has no understanding of art.'