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

No composer of the nineteenth century showed a stronger commitment to the concerto than Saint-SaŽns; for, in addition to ten full-scale concertos, he wrote numerous single-movement pieces for solo instrument and orchestra. Among these compositions the Piano Concerto No. 2 has become the most popular of the five he completed. It was composed in 1868, during the astonishingly short period of just seventeen days. Its style ranges widely, which led one observant commentator to say that it reflected influences “from Bach to Offenbach”; but nevertheless it attracted the admiration of Franz Liszt, no less.

Louis Lortie is, of course, well established as an interpreter of the French piano repertoire, and he brings great assurance and dexterity to these performances. In the Concerto No. 2 there is a commanding confidence about his playing, and the balance with the orchestra is particularly effective, for which all praise to the recording producers and engineer. It is no wonder that this particular concerto is so popular, since the format is richly imaginative and the material is so expertly handled by the composer. Lortie covers this varied ground very effectively, and the driving rhythms of the finale sweep all before them.

The First Concerto is less celebrated, but it remains the case that the young Saint-SaŽns, who was twenty-three at the time, exhibits great mastery of the concerto idiom. The beautifully written piano part conjures memory of Berlioz’s opinion of the teenaged Saint-SaŽns, when the latter was causing a sensation in Paris through his ability to play all the Beethoven sonatas from memory: “He lacks nothing except inexperience”. The initial horn calls prove to be more than mere atmosphere, having a structural purpose too, well beyond the opening movement. Perhaps the jewel in the crown, however, is the central Andante, in which the relationship between piano and orchestra is particularly effective and so well captured by the balance and clarity of the recorded sound.

The construction of the Fourth Concerto is similar to that of the celebrated Organ Symphony, which was composed some ten years later in 1886. There are two large movements, each of which is sub-divided in turn, and Chandos helpfully allocate each section a separate cue point on the disc. The first half of the work grows from darkness to light, and the composer's inspiration becomes more assured in the process. Likewise the two sections of the concerto’s second half develop with increasing conviction, centring on a piano part which demands the utmost dexterity, and this is exactly what Lortie delivers.

This Chandos recording offers splendid performances in well engineered sound, while the accompanying booklet contains a splendid essay by Roger Nichols. A curious feature of the cover page is that the conductor Edward Gardner's name is given more prominence by the Chandos art department than the soloist Louis Lortie, although the latter’s portrait is featured. This new issue enters a crowded market-place and there are several splendid alternatives on offer, not least in the form of a new recording on Erato (01902 95634261) by Bertrand Chamayou with the French National Orchestra, who couples the Second Concerto with the Fifth and various solo items. Therefore it is above all a matter of deciding which combination of works by this inventive and entertaining composer will suit you best.

Terry Barfoot

Previous review: Leslie Wright


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