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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Music for Piano Duo and Duet - Volume 2
Marche interalliťe, Op. 155 (5:19)
Caprice arabe, Op. 96 (7:17)
Danse macabre in G Minor, Op. 40 (7:48)  
Trois Rhapsodies sur des cantiques bretons, Op. 7: I. Allegretto (4:11)
Trois Rhapsodies sur des cantiques bretons, Op. 7: II. Allegro moderato e pomposo (4:46)
Trois Rhapsodies sur des cantiques bretons, Op. 7: III. Andantino (5:30)
Caprice hťroÔque, Op. 106 (9:26)
Wedding Cake in A-Flat Major, Op. 76 "Caprice-Valse" (6:01)
Variations sur un thŤme de Beethoven, Op. 35 (18:27)
Martin Jones and Adrian Farmer (pianos)
rec. 2015/16, Wyastone Leys, UK
NIMBUS NI5941 [68:47]

Nearly two years ago, I reviewed the first of two projected CDs of Martin Jones and Adrian Farmer playing music for piano duo and duet by Saint-SaŽns (review) and now here is volume 2.

The disc begins with the spirited Marche interalliťe, perhaps better known in the original military band version. No detail is lost and the piece certainly works well in the version presented here. It’s a charming, witty piece and the two middle sections form a nice contrast with the boisterous opening theme which returns to form the conclusion of the work.

The second piece on the disc is an original work for two pianos, the Caprice arabe. Like many of Saint-SaŽns’ works, it was composed as a sort of travelogue of his journeying in the Middle East and is full of ethnic sounding touches (rather like the themes in the “Africa” Fantasy, Op.89 or the Moorish sounds heard in the second movement of the Fifth Piano Concerto, the so-called “Egyptian”). The playing here, especially at the beginning, is very delicate and full of interesting detail. The interplay between the two pianos and pianists at around 2’20’’ is superbly handled and perfectly voiced. The work falls into three sections: first, an introductory piece which includes some fugal writing and comes to a full stop before the second section starts; this is bouncier and more fun - the playing here is full of humour and should make you smile. The pace increases throughout this part before dissipating to a quiet, reflective passage around 4’10’’. The transition is perfectly handled and leads into a sort of repeat of the opening themes, only with a delicate web of intricate accompaniment added, all beautifully played and controlled here. After this, things speed up again and we progress to the end of the piece where things get much livelier. As before, there is plenty of wit and charm here and the playing is exemplary throughout.

The most famous work on the disc is undoubtedly the Danse macabre. Having reviewed another recording of this piece in this version (review), I have to say that I far prefer that version to this one. Compared to Ludmila Berlinskaya and Arthur Ancelle, Martin Jones and Adrian Farmer seem more earthbound and less terrifying. This is a shame, because elsewhere on this disc (and on the earlier volume), they are more than capable of sparkling in this repertoire. That said, all the notes are present and correct and the playing is excellently controlled.

Tracks 4 – 6 are taken up with much rarer things: the four hand arrangements of the Three rhapsodies on Breton themes Op.7, originally for organ. These are odd pieces; the first starts meditatively and calmly with a religious sounding theme in thirds before it is amplified into something darker and more mysterious. It becomes increasingly ecstatic until, ultimately, the more pious music returns. This is a lovely piece and excellently played. The second piece is a march, full of strange key changes and unexpected occurrences. After the initial statement, a really complicated fugue starts up which boggles the ears! This is really joyous music, not dry and academic as Saint-SaŽns is often accused of being. This fugue dissolves into a passage with a lot of trills before these too are reduced to a single line.  Again, this gradually increases in power, intensity and complexity before the original march theme returns and the piece ends somewhat unexpectedly. The third of this set is again pious to start with and is perhaps more what might be expected of a religious style of piece. This meanders through various key changes with answering phrases passed from one pianist to the other. The piece proper starts at around 1’50’’, with some powerful writing and fully integrated accompaniment. About 2’30’’, the pace and virtuosity increase and the music is again more ecstatic before becoming quiet and spiritual again. This is a wonderful piece, with so much detail and varying material packed into only 5’30’’; it is well worth a listen. I have a recording of these works in their original version and I have to say I prefer this, as the details stand out much more clearly.

Next is another work written for two pianos, the aptly named Caprice hťroique. This starts powerfully with some crazy piano writing at the beginning which sounds like late Liszt. The theme, when it arrives, is entertaining and amiable, and weaves its way between the pianos very well. The playing here is again marvellous which helps drive the listener along. Around 2’30’’, there is a slow, longing theme. I don’t believe there is a programme behind this piece but maybe the hero is endeavouring to be striving for something? Anyway, after this, the heroic bounciness continues with some really clever and entertaining writing and some super tunes. There is some weird writing at about six minutes in but you can sense the build-up and again there is more late Liszt-like writing as the music climaxes. There is no shortage of virtuosity here from both pianists, especially in the closing pages with lots of leaps, chords and interlinking passages. I really do like this piece; I’ve been familiar with it for years and this is the best rendition I’ve heard.

Saint-SaŽns’ so-called Wedding Cake caprice is also well-known and often recorded along with his excellent five piano concertos. It is perhaps surprising that a composer with such an ability to arrange his works for two pianos or piano duet did not undertake this himself, as he did with all the piano concertos, symphonic poems and much else besides (in fact, most of his orchestral and solo instrumental works exist in two piano or four hand arrangements). Anyway, here it is arranged by Adrian Farmer for two pianos and I must say he’s made an excellent job of it. Again, more sparkle is on view in some superb playing by both pianists. Themes leap from one piano to the other – it sounds as though Mr. Farmer has divided the original piano part between the pianos rather than just arranging the string orchestra for piano and leaving the original solo part as it was. Fond as I am of the original version, this sounds perfect to me. Marvellous!

The remainder of this disc contains the Variations on a Theme by Beethoven for two pianos, published in 1874 as Op.35 and using the ‘Trio’ from the ‘Minuet’ in Beethoven’s Sonata Op.31 no.3 as the starting point. The first variation rebounds from one piano to the other with clever use of trills and generally messing about with the theme rhythmically. Variation 2 is slower and more serious but continues to fill in the gaps in the tune (as it says in the notes). The third variation almost, but not quite, quotes the original theme, but Saint-SaŽns changes the ending to something more unsettling that Beethoven would never have written. ‘Molto Allegro’ is the tempo direction for the following variation; this is very fast and leaps about all over the place in a manner which must be very difficult for the pianists to control but these two manage this perfectly. We then have a ‘Moderato assai’ variation which is moderate in both speed as well as volume. Things speed up again after that to a very light ‘Presto leggierissimo’ which is incredible. However, after this amusing little variation, Saint-SaŽns slows things down hugely with a very strange variation marked as a Funeral March (perhaps a nod to Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ or the Funeral March in the Op.26 Sonata?). There are more late Lisztian textures here and a very dark and mysterious feeling generated by the very odd key chosen. The playing is very evocative and you can almost hear the muffled drums about two minutes in. This peculiarity doesn’t last long, as we have a repeat of the introductory section leading to the penultimate ‘Allegro’ variation which is a rollicking piece, sounding like a fugue with the theme being constantly interrupted and modified before settling down to the finale. This is another bouncing ‘Presto’ with an interlude marked ‘Andante’ before Tempo 1 reasserts itself only more joyously and loudly. The piece ends with a sly wink to Beethoven, when the original theme returns unadorned before a mad headlong rush to the end. I’d never particularly warmed to this work before as it has always seemed a little dull and lacking in wit in comparison to many of Saint-SaŽns’ other works. However, there is jocularity and energy in this performance which has made me rethink my opinion of this fascinating work.

The cover notes are interesting and informative and the recorded sound is excellent and very clear. I do hope this is not the last of these collaborations in works for two pianos and four hands by Saint-SaŽns. As I said in my review of volume 1, I hope this duo go on to record more volumes of these works, as they have made a super job of these two discs.

Jonathan Welsh



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