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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Works for 2 Pianos Volume 3
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Sonata in B-flat minor, Op 35 (1839, arr. Saint-SaŽns, 1907) [24:28]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Sonata in B minor, S.178 (1853, arr. Saint-SaŽns, 1914)[31:02]
Hiro Takenouchi (piano)
Simon Callaghan (piano)
rec. April 2019, Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Wyastone Leys, UK
NIMBUS NI5997 [55:29]

This is the third in a series of discs exploring the 2 piano and piano duet repertoire of Camille Saint-SaŽns. The first two discs covered original works and arrangements of his own music (Volume 1 NI5940 and volume 2 NI5941). For volume three there is a change of duo to the equally excellent partnership of Hiro Takenouchi and Simon Callaghan, both of whom are inveterate explorers into the byways of the repertoire. The two works here are by no means the byways; both are core repertoire and multiple versions of both fill my collection as I'm sure they do for many collectors. What is unusual is to hear them in two piano versions; I have heard broadcast performances of these arrangements but have not previously come across recordings so it good to have them together in wonderful performances and excellent sound.

The familiar Funeral march from Chopin's second Sonata has appeared in many guises; a glance at shows versions for many varied ensembles ranging from theatre orchestra to mixed chorus and piano; there is even a dramatic recitation for speaker and piano– very 19th Century. I imagine there are orchestral versions of both of these Sonatas (I notice that Leo Weiner arranged the Liszt) but these arrangements seem to be the only ones for two pianos. As is clear from earlier albums Saint-SaŽns was fond of the two piano format and it is perhaps not surprising that he should choose to make these arrangements of works that he loved. The booklet tells of the young Saint-SaŽns being forbidden by his teacher Camille-Marie Stamaty (1811-1870) to play or even listen to Chopin's music as well as giving contemporary descriptions of which Schumann's 'bound together four of his maddest children' is the gentlest. It is extraordinary to listen to this piece now and read an 1841 article describing Chopin's works as 'ranting hyperbole and excrutiating cacophony'. Stamaty's dislike might also have been influenced by his teacher, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, whose offer of tuition was turned down by Chopin.

One can sometimes believe this is just one pianist playing here but there are textural changes throughout that belie that. A noticeable point is in the Grave introduction at the opening of the Chopin; the final dominant 7th chord before the main theme doppio movimento is re-distributed and sounds too high and thick in the texture. It doesn't help that Saint-SaŽns decides, rightly or not (and I won't enter that discussion here) to repeat the exposition from the Grave rather than the usual double bar at the doppio movimento so we get to hear it twice. Further on into the development section the division between four hands seems to diminish the effect of the struggle rather than enhance it. I have been listening to Stephen Hough's titanic recording of this work (Hyperion Records CDA68260) which gave me goosebumps; there is no sense of that here and I don't think that it is the fault of the performers. The piý lento of the scherzo sounds too genteel, edging towards the feel of a pretty and somewhat lightweight salon waltz. Even the bass octaves added to the marche funŤbre don't particularly add to it's strength or drama.
Liszt never managed to transcribe his Sonata in B minor for two pianists though he too clearly appreciated the additional scope that the two piano genre offered and arranged many of his works for the medium – did he actually transcribe his Totentanz twice by mistake as Alan Walker suggests in Franz Liszt, the man and his music? Had he tackled the Sonata I imagine the result may have sounded much like this. Again there are textural additions that put chords and melodies higher up the keyboard. In the Grandioso section this certainly helps with the tune which for a single player has to compete against thickly textured repeated chords; here the tune rings out easily in bright octaves. In the following cantando espressivo there is a glorious moment where the melody is gently played, almost bell like, against falling quavers which in the original have to be divided between the single pianist's hands. Although, as in the Chopin, some of the sense of epic struggle is lost I think that on the whole the Liszt works better of the two transcriptions, perhaps because of the almost orchestral textures that are already there. I find the Chopin interesting, even entertaining but ultimately a wee bit underwhelming; as with the various attempts to try and improve on the orchestration of his piano concertos the results always suggest that Chopin got the balance right in the first place.

Any caveats about the success of the results should not reflect on the pianism of Messrs Callaghan and Takenouchi; the playing here is top notch. While they are both olympian in tackling the huge virtuoso demands their ensemble is unassailable in writing that at times must push co-ordination to its limits. The sound is marvellous and I will return to the Liszt just to hear the delicate beauty of much of the playing in the andante sosteuto; the pianissimo scales in the F-sharp major section are a real hold-your-breath-moment.

A quick glance at Saint-SaŽns' worklist shows that there still remain some works for both 4 hands and two pianos including a set of Variations on the chorus from Judas Maccabaeus, a Duo and a transcription of Henri Duparc's symphonic poem Lenore, so hopefully a fourth volume will follow.

Rob Challinor

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