There have been many more recent traversals of single Saint-Saëns concertos; indeed there have been complete sets by a number of pianists in prime sound quality. So why should you want to listen to a brace of mid-1950s performances such as these; on top of this, two different pianists are involved and naturally the sound is, as they say, ‘of its time’ - but then, what sound isn’t?
I’d answer by pointing to three components; those two pianists and the conductor. The more imaginative and colouristic, decisive and exciting pianist was Magda Tagliaferro, who is always a joy to hear. But whilst more sober and outwardly reserved, Jean Doyen was a long-standing member of the French pianistic aristocracy, whose Fauré and d’Indy recordings just hint at the authority he was to display especially in his native repertory. The third essential is the unfussy, direct conductor Jean Fournet, famed for his Berlioz, adroit in his Saint-Saëns.
There’s always a touch of magic when Tagliaferro plays and she doesn’t disappoint in the Fifth Concerto, the Egyptian. She’s as delightful in her way as is Jeanne-Marie Darré in her French recordings, than which no higher praise can be paid. The finger precision here is excellent, as is her dexterity and drive. The Bachian rhetoric is certainly not elided, and nor do the forces stint on the concerto’s moments of ravishing cantilena. So, prepare for wit, warmth, expressive drama, crisp rhythm and colouristic panache. Prepare too for a fizzing finale full of genuine excitement.
Doyen takes the Second Concerto, a work more suited to his temperament, perhaps, than the flashier Fifth. He too is nimble but harder toned than his colleague, elegantly poised in the scherzando second movement and rhythmically poised in the finale, where his phrasing can tend even to the dapper.
Both concertos are conducted by Jean Fournet who also directs the picture postcard exotica of the Suite algérienne with real style and elegance.
Both these concerto recordings are fully deserving of their place in the august history of Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos on disc, amongst which one can number Moiseiwitsch, Lympany and Darré in No.2. And with Fournet things were inevitably idiomatic. Great stuff.