Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Six Etudes for Piano, Op. 52 [27:01]
Six Etudes for Piano, Op. 111 [21:16]
Six Etudes for the Left Hand Alone, Op. 135 [18:57]
Geoffrey Burleson (piano)
rec. January-February 2011, Patrych Sound Studios, Bronx, New York, USA
GRAND PIANO GP601 [67:14]
It seems weird to say that Camille Saint-Saëns is terribly underrated as
a composer. After all, his Carnival of the Animals and Organ Symphony
are universal mega-hits, but those two works are part of the problem. Along
with the second piano concerto, they pigeonhole him as a few-hit wonder, when
in fact his craftsmanship and melodic gift made nearly everything he did important
or at least totally enjoyable. As you might suspect based on the five superb
piano concertos, that extends to his solo piano music.
This, the first volume in a series of the complete piano works, concerns itself
with the composer’s three sets of etudes (see review of Volume
2). The booklet notes, by pianist Geoffrey Burleson, illustrate Saint-Saëns’
keyboard virtuosity in surprising detail: Liszt considered him the greatest
organist on the planet, this after a childhood in which the composer, at the
age of 10, “announced to [an] audience that he would be pleased to perform
any of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas as an encore.” No surprise, then,
that the mature Saint-Saëns would concern himself with technical studies
for the piano, one of the three sets for left hand alone, nor that he would
make these etudes musically valuable too.
Highlights include the etude op 52 no 6, “en forme de valse,”
a favorite encore of Cziffra’s; op 111 no 6, a dazzling and surprisingly
jazzy (in 1899!) toccata based on the finale of the ‘Egyptian’ piano
concerto; and op 52 no 2, “pour l’indépendance des doigts,”
a melancholy miniature in which the melody is formed out of numerous repeated
chords, which the pianist stresses differently every time to highlight specific
notes. The result is a spellbinding feat of writing, so simple but so emotionally
compelling in its sadness. There are tributes to Chopin (the op 111 set opens
with a direct quote from his etudes) and the baroque (there are three preludes
and fugues). The left-hand set Op 135 dates from 1912 and is based on the dance
suites of Rameau and Couperin, with fresh, charming results. It is not a total
precursor to the neoclassical movement, though; a heartfelt but maybe slightly
too long elegy makes sure of that.
As a performer, Geoffrey Burleson is perfectly competent but by no means great.
This CD duplicates a program offered by Piers Lane on Hyperion (Lane adds an
encore), and side-by-side comparison reveals Lane’s superiority time and
again. It’s not superiority of virtuosity, per se; compare that sad little
marvel, op 52 no 2: yes, Lane gets through it more quickly, but he also moves
with a lighter touch, a feather-light delicacy which makes the piece all the
more affecting. In many places Burleson’s phrasing is distinctly plain.
I think part of the problem may be that Burleson’s piano is very closely
miked: it gives a clear, bold picture of the piano’s sound, but it may
be too close to show Burleson’s true ability in the quietest, softest
This is part of the first wave of releases from the new Grand Piano record label.
Part of the Naxos family, Grand Piano will be dedicated to premium-quality releases
of rare piano music. The production is impressive: every release this year will
feature stylish cover paintings by Gro Thorsen, and the excellent booklet essay
is in English and French (and a larger typeface than you’ll find on a
Naxos CD). Plans for the label are ambitious: there will be complete recordings
of the piano music of Schulhoff, Raff, Weinberg (review),
and Tcherepnin (review).
I can’t help wondering if we’ll see Konstantin Scherbakov tackle
Medtner, too. It’s a noteworthy enterprise and every release so far (there
have already been about a dozen) merits attention. I’ll be following the
Weinberg and Tcherepnin series with special interest, since the first volumes
of each has been outstanding; I had hoped this Saint-Saëns project would
deserve great admiration too, but I find myself liking the music despite rather
humdrum performances. Burleson has his moments, and he’s written an excellent
accompanying essay, but compared to other recordings this is not a total success.
I find myself wanting to be more enthusiastic than I am; marvelous music in
often prosaic performances.