SAINT-SAËNS: Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 5; Solo Piano Works [complete composition list below] – Bertrand Chamayou, piano/ Orchestra National de France/ Emmanuel Krvine – Erato 0190295634261, 77:52 (9/7/18)  [Distr. by Warner Classics] ****:

French pianist Bertrand Chamayou (b. 1981) devotes himself in this ambitious album to the music of Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), featuring two of the more popular piano concertos (rec. 4-7 December 2017 and 19-20 April 2018) and fascinating compilation of solo pieces (19-20 April 2018) that belong to the composer’s most polished, virtuoso, salon works. The opening 1868 Piano Concerto No. 2 enjoys a refreshed energy, a blithe and witty sense of rapport between solo and the Orchestre National de France under Emmanuel Krivine. The stunning cadenza that begins the concerto has all the muscular hallmarks of a Bach fantasia. The orchestral tuttis and instrumental supports prove both pungent and piquant. The wonderful Allegro scherzando increasingly reveals its debts to the E Major Scherzo of Chopin. The ripe Presto, a canny tarantella, revels as much in the episodic digressions as in the whirlwind filigree of the dance proper. A product of some two weeks’ energy, the G minor Concerto manages to sing and hurtle its way into our hearts by dint of aerial acrobatics and a natural capacity for affecting melody. Every note in this performance rings with authority and musical conviction—just when you think Chamayou could not play any faster, he accelerates—supported by pungent sonics, courtesy of Executive producer Alain Lanceron.

Portrait of Camille Saint-Saëns, by Pierre Petit, 1900

Camille Saint-Saëns,
by Pierre Petit, 1900

The so-called “Egyptian” Concerto (1896) basks in Algerian sun and the coils of an occasional hookah. Much of the harmonic motion seems to point directly to Ravel, who openly admired Saint-Saëns for his classical sense of musical craft. The second movement Andante, even prior to the Nubian love song, reveals a host of exotic and sensuous dialogue between Chamayou and Krivine. The last movement Molto allegro has flair and requisite panache, a worthy rival to versons by Collard and Roge.

The two etudes from Op. 111—“The Bells of Las Palmas” and the “Thirds in Major and Minor”—project, respectively, a haunted fixation that once more points to Ravel’s “Valley of Bells,” and the composer’s penchant for brilliant display at constant speeds. The latter’s obligation to Chopin could not be more obvious. Artur Rubinstein—in My Younger Years—recounts having been regaled by Saint-Saëns’ improvised rendition of Chopin’s Third Scherzo, which he characterized as “letter-perfect, but too fast.” Chamayou gives both etudes an erotic luster that will enchant any connoisseur of tine piano sound.  The fluttering Allegro appassionato opens with chords that make us think of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C# Minor. A favorite of Jose Iturbi, the piece gravitates into some ornamental meditation before dazzling us with more flutterings in the upper registers that almost hint at Schumann’s The Prophet Bird even while pointing to Granados. The enchanting Valse nonchalante might well have been conceived for the spirit of Francis Poulenc and boulevardier sensibility. One could just as easily ascribe the witty facility to Chabrier. The heavy tread of the Mazurka, Op. 66 soon yields to more delicate fabric, then the composer combines both impulses. The wistfulness that inhabits its middle section, with rolling arpeggios, evinces a liquid melancholy that we—and Chamayou—find compelling in the otherwise unknown Etude No. 2 from Op. 52.

The potent Etude “En forme de valse,” Op. 52, No. 6 has had its acolytes, like Gyorgy Cziffra, who relished its many mechanical similarities to brilliant display pieces in Liszt. The quick octave-passage work can suddenly accelerate in speed and rise in dynamic proportions. The waltz element, however, must retain its supple delicacy and lulling seductiveness. The last pages play games with agogics, all the while thundering in both hands with a velocity to make any Lisztian envious.

Compositions in this release:
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22
Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major, Op. 103 “Egyptian”
Etude, Op. 111, No. 1, “Tierces majeures et mineures”
Etude, Op. 111, No. 4 “Les Cloches de Las Palmas”
Etude, Op. 52, No. 6 “En forme de valse”
Mazurka, Op. 66, No. 3
Allegro appassionato, Op. 70
Etude, Op. 52, No. 2 “Pour l’independence des doigts”
Valse nonchalante, Op. 110

—Gary Lemco

Link to more information from Warner Classics/Erato here.