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Jonathan Woolf
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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 (1868) [23:01]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor, Op. 44 (1875) [27:29]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in F minor, Op.103 ‘Egyptian’ (1896) [30:28]
Violin Sonata No.1 in D minor, Op.75 (1885) [22:12]
Cello Sonata No.1 in C minor, Op.32 (1872) [21:04]
Album, Op.72 No.3 Toccata (1884) [4:07]
Six Etudes for Piano, Op. 52 No.6 ‘en forme de valse’ (1877) [5:51]
Six Etudes for the Left Hand Alone, Op. 135 No.4 (1912) [2:50]
Jeanne-Marie Darré (piano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch (Concerto 2)
ORTF Philharmonic Orchestra/Roberto Benzi (Concerto 4)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Schippers (Concerto 5)
Denise Soriano (violin)
Maurice Maréchal (cello)
rec. Paris 1953-71, Boston 1962, New York 1965
SOLSTICE SOCD 363-64 [62:53 + 74:48]

It would perhaps be too much to claim that Jeanne-Marie Darré (1905-1999) is synonymous with the Saint-Saëns’ concertos but her association with them, engendered and encouraged by the composer himself and cemented by her incredible feat of performing all five in one concert in May 1926, with the Lamoureux Orchestra conducted by Paul Paray, is nevertheless a matter of historical fact. Indeed it was with Paray over twenty years later that she recorded the G minor Concerto and her LP set of all five with Louis Fourestier and the French National Radio Orchestra is, barring inevitable aged sonics, still the litmus test for style and precision in this repertoire.

And now this gatefold twofer appears which presents live performances to enrich her legacy still further. Three concertos, two sonatas and a trio of small solo piano pieces represents a substantial haul. The Second, a favourite of hers, and the Fifth concertos were taped during American tours. No.2 was performed in Boston in February 1962 with Charles Munch, who had famously recorded No.4 with Cortot in Paris in 1935. Munch delivers some powerful, trenchant orchestral attacks and Darré’s mechanism is equally powerfully engaged, with remarkable finger clarity and stylish phrasing. This most Gallic of American orchestras plays with witty finesse for Munch. No.5 followed in January 1965, this time with Thomas Schippers directing the New York Philharmonic. Darré’s playing is truly beautiful, with colouristic subtlety and evocative pointing. The recording is faithful and captures the performance vividly.

No.4 followed in Paris in 1971 with the ORTF Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Roberto Benzi. This sports good stereo sound and purposeful, clear, elegant and supremely well-balanced pianism. There are a few audience noises during the move to the finale where her passagework is passionate, buoyant and exciting. The tracking includes 40 well merited seconds of applause. Only one small point; there seems to be a very brief passage of tape wow at around four minutes into this second and last movement.

The two sonata performances are just as exciting. The performance of the First Violin Sonata dates from December 1958, where she is joined by Densie Soriano, who never recorded this sonata commercially. This Parisian broadcast has already appeared on Meloclassic MC2015 (see review) so I won’t reprise my comments except to add that Darré’s playing of the fugato passage is wonderfully assured and that I concentrated more on the violinist than pianist in that review, though both women performed four sonatas on that very recommendable disc (Mozart, Hahn and Ravel were the others).

My lone reader will know by now that the name Maurice Maréchal makes my stride longer and my heart beat faster. Here he is in the First Cello Sonata in October 1954. The great recording of this work was Paul Bazelaire’s with Isidor Philipp in 1934 and that 78 is rather tighter all round than this reading. But despite being past his best, Maréchal can still summon up that inimitable tone – he is the only cellist I know who defies the instrument’s strings and makes it sound like breathing wood. Darré is very much an equal partner and one of many women pianists with whom the cellist performed at around this time – Lily Bienvenu, Odette Pigault, Hélène Pignari and Cécile Ousset among them. This is a marvelous souvenir of the collaboration between these two players.

Darré also plays the Etude ‘en forme de valse’ which, despite the rather boxy acoustic, is scintillating and full of ineffable wit. The Bourrée for the left hand, Op135/4 is unflappable, and the Toccata Op.72/3 reminds one of the famous commercial 78rpm recording of it that she left behind.

With a most attractive 36-page booklet, filled with photographs, and a dual language French-English booklet essay the pianist has been admirably served by Solstice. Her inexhaustible sensitivity and éclat radiate from every bar of this invigorating release.

Jonathan Woolf

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