Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835–1921)
Album pour Piano, op. 72 (1884) [24:26]
Six Études pour le Piano, op. 52 (1877) [26:07]
Six Études pour le Piano, op. 111 (1899) [21:31]
Mi-Joo Lee (piano)
rec. Fürstliche Reitbahn Arolsen, Germany. No date given. DDD
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM MDG 604 0590-2 [72:25]
Camille Saint-Saëns was one of the major Romantic composers in nineteenth century France. Regarded as a pioneer in his early years after the Great War and then in his eighties Saint-Saëns was still writing in his familiar late-Romantic style and his music had become regarded as anachronistic. Throughout his long life of eighty-six years Saint-Saëns wrote in most genres, including symphonies, concertante works, sacred and secular choral music, a ballet Javotte and incidental music, chamber music, numerous songs and pieces for piano and organ, and numerous arrangements. Saint-Saëns much cherished his thirteen operas all written during the period 1872-1911. Despite being prolific the fame of Saint-Saëns rests largely on just a small number of works most notably: the Symphony No. 3 Organ; the Symphonic Poem: Danse macabre; Softly awakes my heart and the Bacchanale from the opera Samson and Delilah; the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso and Havanaise for violin and orchestra, and The Swan from The Carnival of the Animals. Although of high quality the majority of his works are hardly known. A concert pianist himself a substantial number of Saint-Saëns’s rarely heard solo piano scores are a case in point. Even in his home country his piano scores soon became lost among the piano works of his European predecessors Liszt and Chopin and the impressionism of his successors Debussy, Ravel and Satie.
This MDG release serves as a excellent showcase for the solo piano scores. Presented here are three collections of six piano works. For some reason they are not placed in chronological order. The first is the Album pour Piano, op. 72. These are pieces tailored for virtuoso display in the fashionable Parisian salons and concert halls. The Album opens with an urgent Prélude with passages of calm; sounding somewhat Lisztian. A peaceful work tinged with melancholy the Carillon adopts a more serious quality at its centre. The rapid and darting Toccata has considerable appeal and the Valse is another attractive piece that develops a fervent core. Rocking and undemanding, the Chanson Napolitaine evokes the motion of the gondola. The concluding Final is a dazzling and exuberant showpiece.
The next two collections comprise Études (Studies). These are spacious, polished and appealing in style and at times strike the classical approach of Mendelssohn. The Six Études pour le Piano, op. 52 commence with an upbeat and extrovert Prélude. Titled Pour l'independance des doigts this is melodic and encompasses a sighing and romantic mood. A brisk and determined Prélude and Fugue in F minor is followed by the tricky Etude de rythme so movingly gentle and delicate with an almost pleading quality. The Prélude and Fugue in A major is very fine being both melodic and dramatic, The set culminates in the popular En forme de Valse, sweeping and scatty.
The closing set is the Six Études pour le Piano, op. 111. Opening the set is the short Tierces majeures et mineures which is big-boned and extrovert. Reminding me on occasions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous Flight of the Bumblebee is the rapid Traits chromatiques followed by the Prélude et Fugue notable for its broad and dramatic gestures. Saint-Saëns was a great lover of the sound of bells and wrote several bell-inspired scores. A repetitive piece Les Cloches de Las Palmas contains prominent bell-like figures that could easily be ringing out a warning to townsfolk. The attractive, penultimate and scurrying Tierces majeures chromatiques is only brief. To crown this collection comes the dramatic and boisterous Toccata d'après le cinquième concerto a title that refers to the finale of the Piano Concerto No. 5, op. 103 known as ‘The Egyptian’.
Korean pianist Mi-Joo Lee provides excellent playing with a beautiful tone drawn from her Steinway concert grand (model D). There were only a couple of minor examples of poor technicality otherwise the soloist was gloriously committed, fresh, confident and perceptive. Virtually everything that Saint-Saëns wrote is appealing and of high quality whilst not making any claims for these splendid and interesting scores to be classed as masterworks. They deserve a wider circulation.
Excellent playing - gloriously committed, fresh, confident and perceptive. This deserves a wider circulation.