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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]
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 ‘Bourrée’ (1912) [2:50]
Toccata, Op.72 No.3 (1884) [4:07]
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 SOCD363-64 [62:53 + 74:48]

My introduction to the playing of French pianist Jeanne-Marie Darré (1905–1999) was a long-deleted 2-CD set featuring all five Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos in addition to a performance of the septet, released by EMI in the mid-1990s (5694702). These recordings were made over two years 1955-1957. Darré studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Marguerite Long and Isidor Philipp, and her special relationship with Saint-Saëns stretches back to her twenty-first year when she played all five of his piano concertos in a single concert with the Concerts Lamoureux orchestra, conducted by Paul Paray, for which she made headlines. As a preliminary to this, as a student, she'd undergone a baptism of fire by playing nos. 1,2 and 5 under the composer’s watchful and critical eye. The five-concerto feat was repeated at intervals throughout her career, and the Second Concerto, her favorite, became her calling card.

It's a wonder Saint-Saëns’ piano concertos have never elicited greater enthusiasm from performers and audiences.  The Second Concerto seems to have eclipsed the other four. The Fourth had some advocacy from Cortot, but the First and Third have somewhat fallen by the wayside. We must be thankful to Jeanne-Marie Darré for her ardent and determined championing of the cycle. I did a head-to-head comparison with the three live airings here and their EMI equivalents. Interpretively they run a similar course, but I feel that the presence of an audience boosts them with that extra ounce of frisson. Darré's verve and vigour in the faster movements is both exciting and guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seats. The Scherzando second movement of No. 2 is lithe and fleet of finger. The performance of No. 4 dates from as late as 1971 and, as such, is in the finest sound. The ORTF Philharmonic Orchestra is under the baton of Roberto Benzi. The performance is as expressive as any I've heard. The exotic Fifth Concerto is especially effective, with the Javanese, Spanish and Middle-eastern influences emphatically underlined by Thomas Shippers.

Denise Soriano's (1916-2006) tonal production is monochrome and this one dimensional aspect to her playing confers a somewhat relentless and unvaried aspect to Saint-Saëns' Violin Sonata No.1 in D minor, Op.75. This is most problematic in the second movement Adagio where long sustained notes fail to radiate any warmth; rather they sound white and bland. She doesn't seem to take any inspiration from Darré, who's marvellously supportive and inspirational in her role. All is not lost, however, and the crisp spiccato bowing in the finale positively glistens.
Pre-dating the Violin Sonata performance by four years is a riveting traversal of the Cello Sonata No. 1 in C minor, Op. 32, set down 2 October 1954. The instrumentalist is Maurice Maréchal (1892-1964), a renowned artist who profoundly influenced future generations of cellists. The BBC archive lists a performance of this work dated 23 January 1936 in which the pianist is Ernest Lush but I haven't been able to locate it to compare. The success of this performance rests on the singularity of vision between the two players, who display a real love and commitment to the music. The recorded balance between them couldn't be bettered and this further adds to the success of the reading. The outer movements are passionate and fervid, whilst the refined delicacy of the middle movement is imbued with ardent sincerity.

The three short pieces for solo piano are an absolute delight, and one regrets there aren't more examples. Darré's jeu perlé fluency is captured to perfection in Étude ‘en forme de valse’, one of the composer's most popular pieces. The Bourrée, No. 4 of the Six Études Op135 for the left hand, radiates sparkling vigour, whilst the Toccata Op.72/3 is a piece Darré excelled in, and one which drew admiration from her admirers. It showases to perfection her brilliance of attack and characteristically clean articulation.

I'm amazed how well these recordings sound and they barely reveal their age. The nice, little booklet contains some fascinating photos. In one group picture Darré appears with, amongst others, Pierre Cochereau and Lily Laskine, two favorites of mine, and in another with Yehudi Menuhin and Nadia Boulanger. You couldn't ask for more.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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