SAINT-SAËNS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 17; Piano Concerto No. 2
in G minor, Op. 22; Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor, Op. 44 – Louis Lortie, piano/ BBC Philharmonic/ Edward Gardner – Chandos CHAN 20031, 70:58 (9/7/18) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

That the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 1 of 1858 represents the first such work in the genre by a French composer often goes unnoticed: its opening horn call becomes quite functional in the course of the first movement, a combination of structural integrity and plastic virtuosity. A degree of homage seems to attach to the Chopin style, in terms of melodic invention and glittery filigree, and Saint-Saëns’ sense of orchestral balance already manifests itself in the winds and strings.  The easy suasion between Lortie’s keyboard and the BBC under Gardner (rec. 4-13 January 2018) rings with glossy energy, courtesy of Recording Producers Mike George and Brian Pidgeon.  Clara Schumann, in her less generous mood, likened the Saint-Saëns’ style to musical acrobatics, but her attitude proves too dismissive of the Frenchman’s synthesis of concerto and symphonic canvas.  The second movement Andante sostenuto quasi adagio – Ad libitum, with its dramatic stops and starts, likely looks to the Beethoven G Major Concerto second movement.  The parlando of the keyboard plays against the low winds and strings, with Lortie’s arpeggios and highly-trilled cadenza passage in soaring lyricism and graded dynamics, a model perhaps for Richard Addinsell’s “Warsaw” Concerto.  In some vague notion of “cyclicism,” Saint-Saëns utilizes his horn call once more in the final Allegro con fuoco, a tour de force in the light-hearted Mendelssohn mode.  The synthesis of sonata-form with the boulevardier sensibility obviously will appeal to Francis Poulenc. With the addition of the BBC tympani, the onrush of orchestral and keyboard energies carries us to a completely satisfying peroration, horn call included.

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

Camille Saint-Saëns,
by Pierre Petit, 1900

The 1868 Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 has had a long and successful history in the repertory, opening with Bach and concluding with Offenbach.  Some attribute the lyrical beauties of the first movement to the influence of Saint-Saëns’ own pupil, Gabriel Faure. For the first movement, Lortie’s keyboard cascades and luxuriates in color harmonies, while the orchestra adds mere double-dotted chords and strong pedal points.  The conclusion perfectly mirrors the opening of the music, gaining dynamic girth out of the Bach figures and powerfully announcing the resounding chords whose coda lands on a definitive thump.  The Allegro scherzando borrows from Chopin’s own Scherzo in E Major and its deft filigree, but only to break into something like a French mountain air. While the tympani and piano set the opening mood, the cellos, violas, and basses carry the lyrical chanson that makes this movement memorable. Later, the woodwinds and French horn contribute to the aerial delights of Saint-Saëns’ imagination. The last movement presents a volatile tarantella, Presto, a real test of pianist and orchestra. Piano trills announce the second subject, and they actually develop into a colloquy of keyboard and strings. Lortie and Gardner move the dialogue along, girded by tympanic impulses, until the swirl culminates once more into the titanic urgency of the tarantula’s bite. Zest and pure bravura mark every measure of this dexterous piece, a superb reading that should receive shelf space alongside those by Rubinstein, Sokolov, and Gilels.

The spirit of Franz Liszt infiltrates the spirit of the 1875 Concerto No. 4 in C minor, with its classical division of two movements that themselves subdivide into two more sections.  Four and eight-bar phrases after the C-F# interval run rampant, each based on the small, through-composed kernel that opens the Allegro moderato.  The music transitions from dark C minor into a glowing, almost chorale-like A-flat Major. This tune will provide, cyclically, the main chorale of the last movement, with its culmination in a triumphant C Major. But between these major periods flow a series of titanic and scintillating effects, first brought to my attention via the brilliant skills of Robert Casadesus and Alfred Cortot, whom Lortie follows in warm kinship. Moments of sustained pedal effects have Lortie’s sailing over the keys in the pearly sweetness of glowing runs.  The second movement has Liszt in mind for the explosive triple meter runs that gallop feverishly across the mind, the C minor affect restored in jaunty, militant figures in 6/8. The opening music returns, so we feel that the concept is all of one cloth, in perpetual, wizardly variation. The buildup to the chorale theme, set in four-bar phrases, sounds as if it were an adumbration of the 1889 Franck Symphony in D minor.  Maybe the real analogy lies ahead more directly, in Saint-Saëns’ own Third Symphony.  Lortie invests a throbbing energy into the cascades and blistering runs in this virtuoso synthesis of the pure bravura with the chorale motto theme, and the introduction of the BBC brass make the last pages with Gardner prove as reverberant as any of my referred orchestral leaders in this piece, Mitropoulos, Rodzinski, Jarvi, and Horenstein.

—Gary Lemco

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