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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 17 (1858) [24:34]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 (1868) [22:19]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor, Op. 44 (1875) [23:43]
Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Philharmonic / Edward Gardner
rec. 2018, MediaCityUK, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20031 [70:58]

Saint-SaŽns’s piano concertos continue to be quite popular, at least on record. There was a time when the Second and Fourth concertos were the most often heard, but nowadays all five show up with nearly equal frequency. My introduction to these charming works were the legendary accounts by Jeanne-Marie Darrť with Orchestre National de l’ORTF under Louis Fourestier, which despite their age are still considered by many to be benchmarks. Since then there have been quite a number of recordings, most notably those of Stephen Hough with Sakari Oramo and the City of Birmingham Symphony.

Louis Lortie and the BBC Philharmonic under Edward Gardner now join the competition. They were successful with an earlier disc of Poulenc piano and orchestra works that I reviewed here and from which I have taken much pleasure (review). While I generally like these Saint-SaŽns performances, I don’t think they equal the Poulenc accounts on the earlier disc. There is nothing to complain about as to the technical ability of either Lortie or the orchestra, but lacking is a certain element of allure and lightheartedness that these works demand. Some of this can be attributed to the close and forceful recording that at times can overwhelm the performances.

The Concerto No. 1 begins arrestingly with horn fanfares and their echoes—hear sounding quite distant and with stopped tones. No problem either with Lortie’s entrance, where the arpeggios are rendered clearly. This was Saint-SaŽns’ first concerto in any form and it readily displays the influences of Mendelssohn and Liszt. The second movement provides a real contrast to its predecessor, being austere and dark in its minor key. The finale, then, bursts forth with unalloyed joy, reminding one of Mendelssohn’s piano concertos. Gardner and Lortie sound like they are having a ball here. Overall, this concerto seems to suit them and I found much to enjoy in this account.

The Concerto No. 2 in G minor remains the most popular of his five works in the genre and is likely the most successful structurally. The old joke about it starting like Bach and ending like Offenbach does have some validity. While there is nothing profound about it, it does not outstay its welcome. There is a great deal of competition for this concerto. Lortie and Gardner are at their best in the Presto finale, turning in an exciting performance that lacks nothing in its detail. The first movement, commencing with solo piano like a Bach prelude, is also good until the orchestra plays above forte, when the sound turns harsh. The second movement could have used a lighter touch, especially the second theme that is best when played simply, but I admired the very clear and crisp timpani at the beginning.

The Fourth Concerto has been problematic for me largely because Saint-SaŽns rather overuses the catchy hymn tune, which becomes tiresome with one too many repetitions. The unusual form of two movements, each subdivided, is a precursor of the composer’s much better Third Symphony. In the concerto Saint-SaŽns employs a cyclic principle of repeated themes, obviously influenced by Cťsar Franck. This piece, despite my reservation concerning the hymn tune, contains much delightful music, and Lortie and Gardner to their credit use discretion so as not to inflate the repetitive passages. Theirs is an interpretation I can easily live with.

Chandos’ presentation leaves nothing to be desired, with French music specialist Roger Nichols contributing informative liner notes. If the particular coupling suits, I see no reason to hesitate. These are enjoyable performances, despite my niggling criticisms. If, on the other hand, you have other accounts of these works, I see no urgent need to add this to your collection.

Leslie Wright

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