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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Music for Piano Duo and Duet - Volume 1
Tarantelle, Op.6 [6:23]
Duettino in G Major, Op.11: I. Andantino grazioso [4:02]
Duettino in G Major, Op.11: II. Allegretto [4:04]
Le Rouet d'Omphale, Op.31 [8:14]
KŲnig Harald Harfagar, Op.59 [5:03]
Septet in E Flat Major, Op.65: I. Menuet [4:02]
Septet in E Flat Major, Op.65: II. Gavotte [2:34]
Polonaise, Op.77 [10:34]
Feuillet d'album, Op.81 [3:18]
Berceuse, Op.105 [2:42]
Scherzo, Op.87 [10:11]
Pas redoublť en si bťmol majeur, Op.86 [4:21]
Martin Jones and Adrian Farmer (piano(s))
rec. 14-15 May 2015, 1-2 October 2015, Wyastone Leys, UK
NIMBUS NI5940 [65:35]

After a long period of being viewed as a one-hit wonder, Saint-SaŽns' music seems to be more often recorded with his lesser-known works finally being explored by record companies.  So, here we have the first of a two-disc series with the well-known pianist Martin Jones accompanied by Adrian Farmer in the music for piano duo and piano duet.  It also transpires that volume 2 is already being advertised on the inside of the cover notes so we must hope that it is to be released soon.  Some of the pieces here have been recorded elsewhere often as fillers or asides on other piano duo or piano duet CDs.  The present disc - and the one that follows it - includes various arrangements by the composer of works which are often better known in alternative guises.  Sadly, we still await a complete set of recordings of this composer’s works for piano duet or piano duo although I hope that this might turn out to be the first instalment of such a set.

To begin with we have the Tarantelle, Op.6 which is more often heard in either the version for piano, flute and clarinet (as heard on the Nash Ensemble's excellent Hyperion recording) or for flute, clarinet and orchestra.  Here, the composer faithfully redistributes the flute and the clarinet parts and this works very well.

The Duettino is an original work for piano duet and was published in 1855, making it fairly early. It is a charming little piece in two parts written when the composer was 20. It has a particularly witty first part and a more powerful, but also charming, second section. It is perfectly played here with just the right amount of Gallic charm.
Saint-SaŽns wrote four symphonic poems, the most famous of which is Danse Macabre (Op.40) which incidentally is scheduled to appear on disc two of this series. He also arranged the others for two pianos. The next track is one of these arrangements – Le Rouet d’Omphale (Omphale's Spinning Wheel). I’ve always liked this piece and here, in two-piano guise, it loses none of the clarity or detail found in the orchestral version. The playing is top-notch once again. As an aside, I think Saint-SaŽns must have known the Spinning Song from Wagner’s Flying Dutchman as in my head, the main theme of this keeps morphing from one piece to the other.

Having said that Saint-SaŽns wrote four symphonic poems, it is thought that the next piece, written for piano duet and published as Op.59, was originally intended as a fifth but this never came to fruition. This is KŲnig Harald Harfagar, Op.59, inspired by a ballad by Heine. The first part of the piece seems more closely allied to late period Liszt with whole-tone scales and sinister tremolandos. However, the second half is brighter in nature with hints of the darker music relegated to quiet accompanying murmurings. This is another great piece which I had never heard or heard of before this recording. It is given a great performance.

Saint-SaŽns' Septet, Op.65 is well enough known these days, if not encountered in concert very often. The composer obviously thought it could do with a little more publicity so arranged two of the four movements for two pianos. Again, these are played with clarity and precision and a witty outlook which suits this music perfectly. I prefer this two piano version to the original.

The Polonaise, Op.77 was written in 1886 and is very Polish in character. This is a piece I have been familiar with for years and even after all this time, the main theme sticks in my mind. It has been recorded many times and here it is given an exemplary performance. The difficult rhythms in the middle section are perfectly judged and the two pianists are perfectly in synch throughout.

Track 9 is the Feuillet d'album, Op.81 for piano duet. It's a gorgeous little piece and put paid to the notion that this composer could not write emotional music. This is also fairly well-known and has been recorded before. I really like the way this is played here.

Next follows the Berceuse, Op.105 which is a peaceful short piece as befits the title and is similar in style for Faurť’s Berceuse – a fact which is pointed out in the cover notes. Again, the playing is superb and makes you forget there are actually two people playing.

The Scherzo for two pianos follows next with its late Lisztian opening before becoming a whole lot more boisterous than the preceding Berceuse. Considering the circumstances in which it was written — Saint-SaŽns beloved Mother had just died — there is little hint of misery or grief. It bounces along cheerfully for much of its running time and again the composer's trademark wit is very much to the fore. The only cloud on the horizon is found in a rather unusual set of scale passages occurring at around 8 minutes. These are rather mysterious and, despite their differences from the remainder of the piece everything fits together very well. These scales lead into a jaunty theme which serves to round things off in spectacular fashion. This is fantastic stuff and deserves to be better known.

The final track is a transcription for piano four hands of the Pas redoublť, originally written for military band. This is music with a broad smile on its face, marvellously cheerful. It bounds along full of energy. I defy anyone not to grin while this is playing. Marvellous.

In summary, the two pianists are perfectly in tune with one another at all times. This is thoroughly enjoyable and well recorded with some interesting cover notes. I really look forward to hearing volume 2 … with volumes 3 and 4 to follow, I hope.

Jonathan Welsh



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