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alternatively Crotchet

Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in f minor, Op.103 ‘Egyptian’ (1896) [27:10]
Cťsar FRANCK (1822-90)
Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra [15:53]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in g minor, Op.22 (1868) [22:22]
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Charles Dutoit
rec. 1-3 February 2007, Victoria Hall, Geneva. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English, French and German
DECCA 475 8764 [66:25]

The Saint-SaŽns Piano Concertos may not be great music and they may not receive many concert outings, but they are good fun and there has never been any shortage of good recordings, though no other version couples these two concertos on a single CD.† Only Rubinstein’s BMG version of No.2 couples either of them with the Franck Symphonic Variations, which form a useful more serious interlude here between the two concertos.† If the Franck emerges as the finest music, that is no great matter.
The notes in the booklet make it seem a defence against those who sneer at Saint-SaŽns that he was a child genius – the ‘French Mendelssohn’ – and a polymath.† What really makes his music worthwhile is more ably summed up on the sticker on the front cover of this CD: that it is “sumptuously beautiful”.† There is a great deal more to this composer than The Carnival of the Animals.
Stephen Hough’s award-winning complete set of the concertos at full price (Hyperion CDA67331/2 - see review) and, at a lower price, Pascal Rogť’s on a Double Decca (443 865-2) or on a 5-CD set of Saint-SaŽns Concertos (475 4652) are firm recommendations.† The Ciccolini set on EMI Gemini appears to have been deleted in favour of the Collard recordings (EMI Gemini 5862452, 2 CDs at bargain price) a set which I have not heard but which has had almost universally favourable reviews.† A Brilliant Classics 3-CD set of the 5 Concertos plus the ‘Organ’ Symphony received rather short shrift from Tony Haywood here on Musicweb, but a Vox Box by the same performers received a more favourable review from Raymond Walker.
Rogť’s CD of Nos. 2 and 4, listed in the Penguin Guide and the European Eloquence catalogue as available at bargain price on that label (467 471-2) appears to have been deleted.† There is an Australian Eloquence 2-CD set of all the Piano Concertos on which Rogť’s versions of Nos. 1 and 3 are combined with versions of the other concertos by Davidovich (no.2, recorded 1981), Campanella (No.4, recorded 1970) and Tagliaferro (No.5, recorded 1953) (442 8247).† This is a cheap way to obtain Rogť’s versions of Nos. 1 and 3, if that is what you want.
Tony Haywood’s Musicweb review was unequivocal in recommending the Hough: “forget the opposition” is a clear enough recommendation but those wishing to check it out may do so by listening to brief extracts from every track on the Hyperion website.
Were the Eloquence version of the Rogť performances still available, the other bargain version of Nos. 2 and 4, Idil Biret on Naxos, would be largely redundant, though this, too, is not without its virtues, especially in No. 4.† I added this version to my collection at a time when the competition, especially at less than full price, was much less intense – I fear that it may be due to go in my next spring-clean.
Thibaudet’s timings match those on the Hough set closely in No.5 but Hough’s timings for No.2 are all faster, markedly so in the first movement (10:08 against 11:15).† Biret is slower still in this movement, at 12:28, largely because her performance fails to gel at the start: the whole movement really fails to catch fire.† Biret’s rather heavy playing in the extended opening passage for piano only, which has been likened to a Bach organ prelude, sets the tone for the rest of the movement.† Thibaudet and the orchestra are much more free-wheeling.† In the other movements, too, the tempi on Biret’s Naxos version are noticeably slower and the recording is rather more opaque than on the new Decca.
The Andante sostenuto opening movement of No.2 involves the piano alone in a meditative mood which is taken up by the orchestra, an unusually serious opening for Saint-SaŽns.† Thibaudet and the OSR strike what seems to me just the right tone and the right tempo here and throughout this first movement.† Although they take over a minute longer overall than the Hyperion version and half a minute longer than Bella Davidovich on the Australian Eloquence set (10:32), here, as so often, comparative timings are of limited value if a performance makes sense within its own terms, as this does.† One of the limitations of the comparative approach is that differences of tempo may come to seem most important.† Rhythm, phrasing and general sense of momentum are the most important factors and these are all in place on the new CD.
No.5 is less popular than No.2, though it is difficult to understand why, especially after hearing Thibaudet’s performance.† I have already indicated that Thibaudet’s timings for this concerto closely match Graham Hough’s.† Both are appreciably faster than the Tagliaferro version on Eloquence: Thibaudet’s 10:01 and Hough’s 10:11 are a whole minute faster than Tagliaferro’s 11:17 in the first movement.† I would not wish either Thibaudet to be one whit slower in this movement.
No.5 is an exotic work, anticipating Debussy and Ravel in the evocation of Mediterranean lands and even incorporating the song of a Nile boatman, which earned its nickname, though the name is not of Saint-SaŽns’ own making.† At times the work seems to anticipate Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain – perhaps Thibaudet will offer us a version of this soon, a work almost as seriously underestimated as the Saint-SaŽns concertos.† Piano and orchestra capture the exotic moods of No.5 very capably: if anything, the performance here is even better than that of No.2.
If, as I have seen suggested, the chief recommendation of Rubinstein’s version of the Franck is that it rises to an irresistibly triumphant conclusion, Thibaudet is fully his equal in this respect: both he and the orchestra revel in Franck’s wonderful writing here.
One version of No.2 is unique: Rubinstein played the work for Saint-SaŽns himself.† When I last heard this on LP the sound was decidedly sub-fusc, but CD reincarnations have vastly improved matters.† Now it has been re-mastered in SACD format, no doubt sounding better still, but something in my northern heritage baulks at paying full price for a 1958 recording.† (88697 08279 2, coupled with the Franck Variations and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1).
Thibaudet’s publicity material frequently emphasises the virtuosity and power of his playing and these factors are in evidence here, where appropriate, especially in the Franck Variations.† The sticker on the front cover, however, quotes The Times to the effect that he also has “a rare feeling for colour and texture” and this quality is paramount on this CD.
Rogť’s versions, with the Philharmonia, RPO and LPO, are all conducted by Charles Dutoit, who is also the conductor on these new recordings.† Having made a world-class orchestra of the Montreal Symphony, has he managed to do the same for the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande here?† Not quite – there is at times a certain lack of richness in the strings by comparison with the best – but I was not often aware of this.† He has elicited very musical playing from them, comparable with the kinds of results which Ansermet used to achieve with this orchestra.

Throughout the CD the recording is up to Decca’s usual high standard.
I wish we might have had more cheerful photographs of Thibaudet himself than those which grace the cover and inside pages of the booklet.† At least he does look a little more cheerful on the back of the CD, more in keeping with the claim on the sticker that he enters into the spirit of the belle ťpoque.† He does enter into that mood, especially in No.5, a performance which really lifts the spirits, but the cover hardly encourages the random browser.† Nor do I understand why the digits 2 and 5 appear in fractured form on the label – there is nothing fractured about these performances.
Even if you already have a version of the more popular No.2, it is unlikely to be better than this and the CD is well worth buying for No.5 alone.
Brian Wilson


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