> Camille Saint-SaŽns - Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5 [TB]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5
Africa Fantasy
Rapsodie d'Auvergne
Wedding Cake Caprice

Angela Brownridge (piano)
Hallé Orchestra/Paul Murphy
Rec 20-21 July 2000, 26 February 2001, Studio 7, BBC Manchester
ASV QUICKSILVA CD QSS 262 [2CDs: 79.34 & 79.06]


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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 great pleasure.

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.'

Terry Barfoot

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