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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 (1868) [23:04]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103 (1896) [27:00]
Louis Schwizgebel (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Fabien Gabel (No. 2), Martyn Brabbins (No. 5)
rec. 18 February 2014 (No. 2), 7 April 2015 (No. 5), BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, UK
Reviewed as a 24/44.1 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
APART… AP112 [50:04]

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Saint-SaŽns only wrote one piece, the ‘Organ’ Symphony; heaven knows I’ve reviewed enough recordings of that warhorse. So it’s a pleasure to welcome this coupling of the Second and Fifth Piano Concertos. The Swiss-Chinese pianist Louis Schwizgebel, runner-up in the 2012 Leeds Piano Competition and now a BBC New Generation Artist, is new to me; however, Roger Blackburn praised Poems, Schwizgebel's recent disc of solos by Holliger, Liszt, Ravel and Schubert, and Bob Briggs was frankly overwhelmed by his 2008 recital at London’s Wigmore Hall (review).

Saint-SaŽns once said that he composed music like apple trees produce fruit, and his Piano Concerto No. 2, written in just three weeks, proves the point. It’s a lovely work, alive with invention and interest, which may be why it’s the composer’s most popular contribution to the genre. ArkivMusic list 48 available recordings, with No. 5 the next in line at 21. Schwizgebel’s stylish opening solo has Lisztian colour and virtuosity; Apartť’s recording, made in association with Radio 3, is vivid and nicely detailed. Factor in alert and sensitive support from Fabien Gabel and the BBC Symphony and you get a thrilling sense of music ‘caught on the wing’ as it were.

What a splendid opener this is, and how quickly one warms to this most engaging artist. He brings to this concerto a raft of echoes – Beethoven and Schumann come to mind – all of which are melded into an eloquent, free-flowing whole. Goodness, those runs and roulades are breathtaking, and the sensibly placed piano is very well caught. More important, there’s a compelling sense of discovery here, born of an archaeological fascination with what lies behind the notes. Schwizgebel then presents his findings with unfettered glee and a terrific sense of theatre; how rare that is in this age of rampant egos and runaway technique.

Such qualities are most appreciated in the obstinate burr of a theme that dominates the Allegro scherzando; the BBC timps are in rapt attendance here. As for those dancerly diversions they’re cannily done. Schwizgebel’s articulation and phrasing are exemplary, as is his feel for overall thrust and contour. There’s no let-up in the Presto either, which trips off the keyboard with disarming ease. There’s no hint of redundancy here, each and every musical component revealed as an essential part of the whole. And despite the presence of so much adrenalin the audience is remarkably restrained; the applause has been edited out.

Saint-SaŽns’ fifth and final piano concerto was composed in Luxor, hence its 'Egyptian' subtitle. This is good-quality fabric, shot through with exotic threads; it’s all so subtly done – there’s nothing remotely clichťd about the use of local colour – and Schwizgebel calibrates his responses accordingly. The Allegro animato is full of incident, and although there's an air of well-deserved accomplishment here the music still has a youthful twinkle in its eye. It's a delightful mix, to which both soloist and orchestra respond with alacrity and a pleasing sense of style. While there may be other more 'complete' interpretations of the piece - I've listed some comparative versions below - few can be as refreshing as this one.

Although this concerto was recorded sans audience it has all the frisson that makes that Op. 22 so very special. The Andante may seem rather circumspect at times, but again Schwizgebel strikes a judicious balance between glitter and gravitas. As for conductor Martyn Brabbins, he's in perfect accord with his soloist throughout; just listen to how well he judges those soft tam-tam strokes, to which the pianist responds with inscrutable, Sphinx-like flourishes. Schwizgebel then launches into the Molto allegro with a focused brilliance that fair takes one's breath away; now if there had been an audience in the studio that day they would surely have responded to this performance with thunderous approbation.

There’s plenty of competition out there, not least from Stephen Hough and the CBSO under Sakari Oramo; that 2-CD set, which contains all Saint-SaŽns’ music for piano and orchestra, is also available as a reasonably priced download from Hyperion. Listening to Hough's Opp. 22 and 103 is instructive; he's so deft and intuitive in this repertoire, combining unrivalled insight with irresistible energy. These are supremely cultured performances, very well recorded (review). Incidentally, Hough's coruscating account of Africa is just fabulous. I've also listened to the Anna Malikova/Thomas Sanderling set of the five concertos (Audite 91650); there's much to admire in those readings, but I feel they lack the spontaneity and lift that make Hough and Schwizgebel stand out so.

I don’t expect to hear better accounts of these concertos any time soon; yes, Schwizgebel really is that good.

Dan Morgan