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Saint-Saens PCs BIS2400
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Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op.22 (1868)
Valse-Caprice, Wedding Cake for piano and strings Op.76 (1885)
Allegro appassionato Op.70 (1884)
Piano Concerto No.1 in D major Op.17 (1858)
Rhapsodie d'Auvergne Op.73 (1884)
Africa Op.89 (1891)
Alexandre Kantorow (piano)
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Jean-Jacques Kantorow
rec. 2018-21, Tapiola Hall, Espoo, Finland
BIS BIS-2400 SACD [85]

Recorded in gorgeous sound this well-filled disc is a companion to BIS2300 that features the last three piano concertos (review) and brings together the remaining concertos and the shorter concertante works. Dan Morgan was mightily impressed by the prowess and thoughtful playing of Kantorow as well as the orchestral contribution of the Tapiola players conducted by Jean-Jacques Kantorow and I have to echo that here. This is big-boned, bold playing from all the performers and Kantorow senior is a genuine partner following the often broad rubato of the soloist as if they were one. Perhaps it is best to say here that my only real issue with the playing here is the occasional point-making from the soloist that for me takes the edge off the natural phrasing and flexibility of Saint-Saëns' writing. In the second concerto, recorded most recently of these items in September 2021, it is most apparent in the opening bars where Kantorow lingers over the semiquavers or in the halting phrasing of the dolce cantabile second theme. That is probably my only quibble with the playing however and even in an age where technical prowess is seemingly commonplace the combination of Saint-Saëns and Kantorow produces some extraordinary and exhilarating music making.

The familiar G minor Concerto, quibbles aside, sets the scene and one is rocked between edge-of-your-seat thrills and open mouthed astonishment at the sheer lightness and sure-footed delicacy on display. The presto is taken at a lick that I have seldom encountered but the clarity of the playing is never in doubt. The delicacy continues in the frothy Waltz Caprice, something of a sugary confection but certainly welcome for the sweet-toothed amongst us. Written for just piano and strings it was a wedding present for Saint-Saëns' friend, Liszt pupil Caroline Montigny-Rémaury and is a decorated as its title, Wedding Cake, would suggest. The only relief from this is the second theme where Kantorow makes much of the contrast in texture and swaggers admirably. His ability to find these contrasts shows too in the Allegro appassionata where the dash and vigour of the main body of the piece is set against the lyrical second theme that has a different touch entirely and he marries these two characters effortlessly. This piece was recorded in January 2020 along with Africa and the first Concerto, a piece that I have long enjoyed. Unlike some of his other early works it sounds like Saint-Saëns rather than Mozart or Mendelssohn – both noticeable influences in the early symphonies – and there is some accomplished writing and novel keyboard figurations. Kantorow revels in the youthful exuberance of the writing throughout but it is perhaps the wonderfully imaginative and evocative second movement that impresses most where Kantorow weaves a fine atmosphere out of the gentle harmonic piquancies and delicate cadenzas. This takes nothing away from the easy strength and drive of his octave technique or the buoyancy of his scales in the finale of course.

The two travelogues Rhapsodie d'Auvergne and Africa complete this recital. Saint-Saëns was obviously fond of both works as he recorded very abbreviated but still astonishing versions of them for G & T in 1904. Much the same astonishment can be found here; Kantorow is as fearless and dramatic as anywhere in this collection and the two works bring the disc to a rousing and utterly satisfying close.

Jean-Pascal Vachon's notes, in English, German and French, are comprehensive and informative and the gatefold sleeve features a 1913 photograph of Saint-Saëns at the piano as Pierre Monteux conducts. As Dan Morgan said of the first volume comparisons with recordings of other pianists are pretty much unnecessary; Hough is wonderful and I love Bernard Chamayou's recording of the second and fifth Concertos (Warner Classics 90295634261) but the exuberance and keen sense of texture and drama on display here makes this a very strong contender and a wonderful showcase of this young French pianist.

Rob Challinor



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