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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
The Piano Concertos Vol. 1
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 17 (1858) [27:03]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 (1868) [24:34]
Allegro appassionato, Op. 70 (version for piano and orchestra) (1884) [6:45]
Romain Descharmes (piano)
MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra/Marc Soustrot
rec. 8 & 9 June 2015, MalmŲ Concert Hall, MalmŲ, Sweden
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from Qobuz
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.573476

The Piano Concertos Vol. 2
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 29 (1869) [28:27]
Rhapsodie d'Auvergne, Op. 73 (1884) [10:33]
Africa, Op. 89 (1889-1891) [11:25]
Caprice-Valse, Op. 76, ‘Wedding Cake’ (1886) [6:51]
Romain Descharmes (piano)
MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra/Marc Soustrot
rec. 10-12 June 2015, MalmŲ Concert Hall, MalmŲ, Sweden
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.573477

Naxos have hit on a good formula with their Saint-SaŽns orchestral and concerto cycles, which feature the MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra under their chief conductor Marc Soustrot. And although they face stiff competition on both fronts, there’s always room for more of this moreish music. My benchmark for these concertos and other pieces for piano and orchestra is the splendid Stephen Hough set from Hyperion, with Sakari Oramo and the CBSO in rapt attendance. That said, if Louis Schwizgebel goes for the full house – to date he’s only recorded the second and fifth concertos – he could be a strong contender too. Indeed, that album was one of my top picks for 2016.

The French pianist Romain Descharmes, who made his debut with the Orchestre de Paris in 2012, is new to me, but I see Brian Reinhart praised him for his ‘sensitive and polished’ accompaniment in Tianwa Yang’s account of the Mendelssohn Violin Sonata in F minor (Naxos 8.572662). Those are qualities that should stand him in good stead here. As for the MalmŲ band, I shall always be indebted to them for their authentic Ives with James Sinclair (Naxos 8.559353).

Saint-SaŽns’s Op. 17, which dates from 1858, has the distinction of being the first piano concerto written by a major French composer. And what a magical thing it is, the gorgeous horn calls and animated piano giving it a truly Romantic feel. I’ve never understood why Saint-SaŽns’s contributions to the genre have never been played or recorded as often as those of his German contemporaries. As for Descharmes and Soustrot, they’re clearly on the same page, working together to unleash the joie de vivre that permeates this delightful piece. The spirited orchestral playing and the warm, very engaging sound only add to one’s sense of pleasure.

There’s much to be said for total immersion in a given project, and the fact that these concertos were all recorded within a few days of each other must surely bind these performers to the music in a way that those made over months or years cannot do. Consistency is the keynote here, from natural phrasing and well-judged tempi to believable balances and the kind of caught-on-the-wing music-making that one associates more with live concerts than studio sessions. And how individual these concertos are, Descharmes just as adept in the stern, rather Brahmsian passages of Op. 22 as he is in its Puckish Allegro scherzando and freewheeling finale. The vivacious little Allegro appassionato, probably best known in its solo-piano form, is the perfect coda to this barnstorming programme.

For a number of reasons Saint-SaŽns’s second and third concertos, composed just a year apart, didn’t do well at their premieres. The latter, the least recorded of the five, certainly has an imposing mien that sets it apart from its predecessors. Some of the sonorities are startling, and Soustrot, alive to such shifts, makes the most of them. Descharmes is equally receptive, those unsettling chords and dark harmonies exploited to the full. Indeed, it’s not difficult to hear why this concerto is less popular than the others, but this committed, strongly characterised performance should win it a raft of new friends.

The fillers are a mix of the rare and the instantly recognisable. The folksong-centred Rhapsodie d'Auvergne, which belongs in the first category, really deserves to be better known. The piano part – wistful, the past half-remembered – is pure delight, thanks to the affectionate, unmannered way in which it’s delivered. A hidden gem, this. Africa, which draws on the composer’s travels on that continent, is not short of sparkle, either. Even though I know the piece well, nothing prepared me for Descharmes’ superb control of the work’s distinctive syncopations. And if that weren’t praise enough, he despatches the ‘Wedding Cake’ waltz with true Gallic charm.

Such is the stature of these performances that it seems almost perverse to compare them with those of Hough/Oramo. As expected, it’s more a case of swings and roundabouts than chalk and cheese. The CBSO are in fine fettle throughout and, like his rival, Oramo is very much at ease here. As for Hough, he’s a big, more flamboyant performer, with a sound to match. That said, Descharmes has a special way with this music that’s really quite liberating. Yes, Hough still reigns supreme, but given the quality of this emerging cycle he could be about to lose his crown.

A winning partnership in every way; roll on Volume 3!

Dan Morgan

MusicWeb reviews of orchestral Saint-SaŽns (MalmŲ SO/Soustrot)
Volume 1 Volume 2 Volume 3


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