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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No.1 in D, Op.17 [27:03]
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.22 [24:34]
Allegro Appassionato in C sharp minor, Op.70 [6:45]
Romain Descharmes (piano)
MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra/Marc Soustrot
rec. MalmŲ Concert Hall, Sweden, 8-9 June 2015
NAXOS 8.573476 [58:22]

Since 2013 Marc Soustrot and the MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra have been recording all of Saint-SaŽns’s orchestral music for Naxos. They have now reached the piano concertos. They enter a well populated field, but one which can certainly withstand another intelligently sympathetic reading. This new recording of the first two Concertos is most certainly that. Set against the Hough/CBSO/Oramo/Hyperion set of all five concertos released in 2001, Romain Descharmes does not have the compelling insight of Stephen Hough, the MalmŲ orchestra lacks the finesse of their Birmingham counterparts, Soustrot does not have quite such a subtle touch as Sakari Oramo, and the Naxos recording is a little less vivid. This is none-the-less a very creditable release for anyone seeking a recording which presents the music in a genuinely faithful and unpretentious manner. Perhaps the recording places the piano a bit too far forward and the orchestral basses in the slow movement of the first concerto are really too thunderously jazzy to convey any sense of the “exquisite gloom” promised in the booklet notes, but in all other respects this is a thoroughly enjoyable release.

From the antiphonal horn calls of the opening to the glittering, almost Tchaikovskian flashiness of the final movement, the First Concerto has a freshness and vigour about it. Glittering piano figurations show Descharmes to be fully in command of the music’s virtuoso writing, and Soustrot supports him with a tremendously full-blooded orchestral support which never holds back for a moment. Indeed, at times the orchestral support becomes not so much obtrusive as weighty, giving the music a sense of deep, fundamental strength.

This is something which pays dividends in the dramatic, quasi-Bach gestures which open the Second Concerto. The grand opening is beautifully poised and Descharmes manages the transition into the gentle main theme superbly. The entry of the orchestra after the piano has stated this theme is possibly a touch heavy-handed, as are Soustrot’s very pronounced hairpin dynamics as the music moves on to the lovely second theme, but the magical way in which he allows the music to ebb and flow does much to reveal the glorious logic and craftsmanship of Saint-SaŽns’ writing. In the second movement Descharmes does not offer up the same nimble-fingered bubbliness as Hough, but Soustrot places the orchestral detail immaculately so that we can enjoy not so much pianistic glitter as piano and orchestra in a balanced dialogue; which is probably just what Saint-SaŽns was aiming for. With the weighty orchestral tone and the hefty recorded sound, the final tarantella has an impact which is more stormy than fiery, and none the worse for that. It certainly does not want for excitement, and after Descharmes’ eloquent trills across the keyboard, the performance works itself up to ta truly grand climax.

The disc also gives one of several short pieces Saint-SaŽns wrote for piano and orchestra; the Allegro appassionato of 1884. This is very much a tour-de-force for piano, switching across passages of brisk filigree work and reflective pathos with only occasional interjections from the orchestra. Descharmes’ fleet-fingered approach makes light work of the rapid passagework, and he is quick to draw into himself for the more introspective moments. This is an intelligent and satisfying performance of music which wears its heart on its sleeve and fills its six minutes with such fertile material one feels it is more like ideas for a longer work than something intended to stand on its own.

Marc Rochester

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)



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