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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, Simon Callaghan (pianos)
rec. April 2019, Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Wyastone Leys, UK
NIMBUS NI5997 [55:29]

This CD was previously reviewed by my fellow reviewer, Rob Challinor.  I have been looking forward to the continuation of this series after reviewing both of the previous volumes (see volume 1 and volume 2) and to finding new works by Saint-SaŽns that I didn’t already know, so I was surprised to discover that this new volume includes some of his transcriptions of other composers’ works rather than continuing with the remaining original works for two pianos and duet. Still, no matter, as it is not exactly as if either of these transcriptions is well known.

The disc starts with Chopin’s second sonata, which is so well known that it barely needs an introduction; however, it is worth noting that Saint-SaŽns arranged this work in 1907, almost 70 years after it was originally composed. One thing which particularly stands out in this performance is that the whole of the first movement recapitulation is taken, including the opening grim-sounding four bars which occur before the section marked ‘Doppio movimento’, where the restless base accompaniment to the main theme becomes established. Compared to the other recordings that I own and to those I have heard, this came as a bit of a surprise, but this is apparently what Saint-SaŽns asks for in his score. I was initially slightly puzzled by this performance as the whole structure of the first movement seemed slightly off-kilter, but with repeated listenings I because used to it and this strange, dislocated feeling that the performers impart to the work actually works very well. It also helps to reinforce the few calm moments that occur in this movement. The Scherzo is magnificent – it bounces along merrily and quickly with both pianists sparking off one another nicely. The tempo is marginally faster than most of the solo piano versions that I’ve heard but all the details are here and are very well executed. The additions that Saint-SaŽns made here seem to be minimal, just filling out of textures and octave doublings here and there but they do not affect the musical argument or the structure. The central, quieter interlude is wonderful, full of clever harmonic invention and some very good writing which Saint-SaŽns clearly knows when to add to in this version. The third movement Funeral March fares excellently in this arrangement; it is absolutely splendidly played, full of a palpable sense of menace and darkness as well as misery. The central contrasted section is ethereally beautiful before being jerked back to the plodding march to conclude the piece. Despite this, I think what really comes across more than anything else is the wistful sadness. The finale “wind rushing through graves”, as it has been described, works remarkably well; both pianists seem to know which points to accentuate and the concluding single bare octave fortissimo still comes as a shock, even if you know the work well. Overall, this is a very good performance of this transcription – it not only points up what a super job Saint-SaŽns did in his work but how closely these two pianists are in harmony with one another.

The following track is Liszt’s amazing B minor sonata which has been recorded in this transcription previously (by Ludmila Berlinskaya and Arthur Ancelle) and reviewed by me. The opening is suitably sinister and on headphones you can hear which pianist is playing which notes, which is a novelty! The opening ‘Allegro energico’ is well played and all the details are there, albeit augmented by the addition of another pianist. The ‘Grandioso’ section following this is particularly good. There are one or two octave doublings here but Saint-SaŽns generally leaves most of the writing similar to Liszt’s original. The detail at about 6’50’’ on track 5 is phenomenal and the sense of preparing for the next powerful section (‘Allegro energico’ – with lots of powerful octaves), is expertly handled. The really loud part, at 10’05’’ is not so bludgeoned that it overshadows the next quiet ‘Recitativo’ and the whole section, despite the changes in tempo, works extremely well. All of this music serves as a nice build up to the lovely ‘Andante sostenuto’ which, while being a bit too slow for an ‘Andante’, is superbly played. This gradually builds in tension before transitioning nicely to the next occurrence of the ‘Grandioso’ theme from near the beginning, this time in F sharp major. In time, this dissolves quietly into a superbly judged ‘Espressivo’ passage (at 5’20’’) which is beautifully played. I have to say that all of the slower sections of music in this sonata are played with utmost attention to detail and reverence and this is no exception. The strange fugal passage (another ‘Allegro energico’) which restarts the sonata at the start of the final track (7) is fast, but not so fast that it loses detail but it does get faster (as I feel it should do) as the music winds up to a repeat of the music heard at the outset of the work. The remainder of the sonata is made up of earlier music, further modified and mutated into something different entirely. Both performers are well aware of this and it is clear that they understand the way the piece is put together. The powerful writing in this last part of the sonata is especially well played and makes for an excellent contrast to some of the utterly beguiling playing of the slower, less frantic parts. The ‘Stretta’ (where Saint-SaŽns includes some octave doublings and redistribution of notes) and the following ‘Presto’ does sound a bit odd to me - it sounds dislocated and slightly off but I cannot put my finger on why. However, once that is finished with, another reiteration of the ‘Grandioso’ theme builds to a mighty climax before an utterly superb last couple of pages with a beautifully phrased and executed ‘Andante sostenuto’ interspersed with a short ‘Allegro moderato’ in the middle. The last few bars, making up the ending, are deftly handled with the creepy descending passages reminiscent of the opening. The very final chords are perfectly judged as the work draws to an enigmatic conclusion with a single B quietly in the bass.

I was so looking forward to this recording, as I thoroughly enjoyed the two earlier volumes and had high hopes for it. The Chopin is very good indeed but unfortunately, for some reason, the Liszt Sonata, despite all of its good points (and there are many) just doesn’t quite catch my imagination. As I stated earlier, this transcription has been recorded before and I have to say that I do prefer that version to this one. However, the recording quality is very clear and bright and the cover notes are interesting, if a little short, as is the playing time, but playing something more after the rapt conclusion of the Liszt Sonata would probably spoil the atmosphere, so I can understand why it is done this way. I do hope there will be a volume 4 as there is plenty more music by Saint-SaŽns for these forces which needs to be recorded.

Jonathan Welsh

Previous review: Rob Challinor

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