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Camille SAINT-SA╦NS (1835-1921)
The Piano Concertos Vol. 3
Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor, Op. 44 (1875) [26:30]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103, ‘Egyptian’ (1896) [28:46]
Romain Descharmes (piano)
Malm÷ Symphony Orchestra/Marc Soustrot
rec. June 2015, Malm÷ Live Concert Hall, Malm÷, Sweden
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from Presto
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.573478 [55:07]

Having reviewed the first two instalments in this splendid series – both were Recordings of the Month – I could hardly wait to hear this one. But would it live up to the high musical and technical standards of its predecessors? (Of course, such elevated expectations aren’t without risk, as I know too well.) Then there’s the competition, especially from Stephen Hough, whose Hyperion set of all the works for piano and orchestra is a must-have. And don’t overlook the wild card, Louis Schwizgebel (ApartÚ); to date he’s only recorded the second and fifth concertos, but he’d be a formidable contender if he went for the full house.

The Descharmes/Soustrot account of the Brahmsian fourth concerto gets off to a fairly good start. But while the soloist seems refined and rhapsodic, the orchestral bass – timps in particular – is somewhat diffuse. Also, the piano sound isn’t as ingratiating as before, an impression confirmed by revisiting Volume 1. However, it’s the second movement, marked Allegro vivaceAndanteAllegro, that really lets the side down. Soustrot is unaccountably foursquare at this point, and there’s a surprising lack of spark and spontaneity to both the music-making and the sound. The former seems effortful and earthbound, and the latter isn’t helped by flattened perspectives that emphasise the orchestra far too much for my taste.

Now I’m perplexed; the same venue, the same engineer and set down just days after the other concertos in the series, and yet this one’s a world apart. To lift my spirits, I turned to Hough’s Op. 44, recorded with Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO in 2000. Immediately, I was struck by the perk and bounce of this performance. Not only that, the soundstage is wider and deeper, with a better balance between piano and orchestra. Most important, Hough/Oramo bring a propulsive brilliance to the second movement that Descharmes/Soustrot can’t match. Also, Oramo is a pliable accompanist, the Brits more polished than their Swedish counterparts. No contest.

I really hoped the Frenchmen would make amends in the fifth concerto, and while the Allegro animato is certainly attractive, it rambles rather. As for the recording, my reservations persist, the Andante boomy at the bottom and a little hard at the top. But what troubles me most is the static quality of this performance, which resolutely refuses to develop any kind of narrative. On the plus side, Descharmes is wonderfully inward at times, and the concerto assumes a shape, character and momentum that’s been lacking thus far. Soustrot isn’t terribly inspired though, and the finale, mobile as it is, just doesn’t feel like the culmination it should be.

Listening to the very start of Schwizgebel’s ‘Egyptian’, recorded with the BBC SO under Martyn Brabbins, I was struck by the easy, unfettered nature of his performance. Not only that, there’s more light and shade here, the rhythms of the second movement infused with apt energy and exoticism. Moreover, Schwizgebel creates – and sustains – an air of fantasy, something that Descharmes can’t quite manage. And yes, the finale has terrific pace and punch, with a welcome sense of destination and delight. Hough is similarly impressive in this concerto, but then he rarely puts a foot wrong with this rep. Both he and Schwizgebel are far better recorded as well, and that does full justice to soloists and composer alike.

And it all started so well….

Dan Morgan


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