A deliciously joyful collection of four-hand work to complement your Saint-Saens library.

SAINT-SAENS: Music for Piano Duo and Duet, Vol. One = Tarantelle, Op. 6; Duettino in G Major, Op. 11; Le Rouet d’Omphale, Op. 31; Koenig Harald Harfagar, Op. 59; Septet: Menuet & Gavotte; Polonaise, Op. 77; Feuillet d’album, Op. 81; Berceuse, Op. 105; Scherzo, Op. 87; Pas redouble in B-flat Major, Op. 86 – Martin Jones & Adrian Farmer, pianos – Nimbus Alliance NI 5940 65:35 (8/12/16) [www.wyastone.co.uk] ****:

This recording (May & October 2015) presents the first of two volumes of original compositions and arrangements for piano duo and duet by Camille Saint-Saëns. This program offers the substantial Scherzo, Op. 87 and Polonaise, Op. 77 for two pianos, alongside a number of smaller works for two pianos and piano four hands. Saint-Saens (1835-1921)himself re-cast several of his chamber music compositions for piano-duo performance, as in his 1857 Tarantelle, Op. 6.  Typically, this composer’s music enjoys the brio of life, its sparkle and elan. Playful clarity combines with serenity in craft and security of expression. The other significant chamber music arrangement, from the 1880 Septet, Op. 65, arranges the staid Menuet & Gavotte in liquid tones. Two orchestral works find their new medium sympathetic: the tone-poem Le Rouet d’Omphale (1871) and a military-band piece, Pas redouble in B-flat Major, Op. 86 (1887).

The 1886 Polonaise had a1913 collaboration with Saint-Saens and Paderewski, and it fulfills its task of providing a brilliant and elegant showpiece. At several intervals, we hear the allusions to Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat. More extraordinary and imposing, the 1889 Scherzo, Op. 87 travels by strange and beguiling modulations, the result of the composer’s mourning his departed mother and a journey to the Canary Islands. The musical style deems a cross between Debussy and Chabrier, utilizing whole tones and invoking an askew waltz tune. The late scale passages will certainly raise an eyebrow or two, as had Beethoven’s in the midst of his Emperor Concerto first movement.

Having just reviewed Sir Thomas Beecham’s performance of Le Rouet d’Omphale, Op. 31 (on Pristine Audio PASC 480), my hearing it set as a piano duo does not compromise its spinning – a la the Mendelssohn song without words – ingenuities at all.  Jones and Farmer manage to make the swelling monotony of Hercules’ “labors” quite menacing before the scherzando wipes the toils away. Saint-Saens took poet Heinrich Heine as his source for the 1880 Koenig Harald Harfagar, Op. 59, the musical tribute to Norway’s legendary first king who united the country. Chromatic chords signify Harfagar’s residence in – and rising from – the watery depths of the sea. The 1880 Septet, Op. 65 has two transcriptions, essentially mock-ups of courtly dances. The pearly play of the writing ends with a decisive jolt into the present. The “patriotic” Pas redouble of 1887 might poke fun at the French national fervor of the Third Republic, with a bouncy elan we know from Rossini and the Strauss family.

The remainder of these opera cast a gentle glow, almost certainly influential in the evolving style of Saint-Saens’ masterful pupil, Gabriel Faure. The flowing, facile 1855 Duettino in G Major, Op. 11 seems to point directly to Faure’s future Dolly Suite. The 1887 Feuillet d’album, Op. 81 could easily pass as a Faure work. Saint-Saens, like his gifted pupil, favors learned counterpoint when required. The credits become reverse in the 1896 Berceuse in E Major, Op. 105, wherein the loveliness seems directly indebted to Faure, specifically Dolly.

A great recital of music sure to fill in those “missing” opus numbers in your Saint-Saens’ library.

–Gary Lemco