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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Rare Piano Works - Played on a 1923 Pleyel
Suite pour le piano Op 90 [12:18]
Album pour le piano Op 72 [25:26]
Première Mazurka Op 21 [3:36]
Deuxième Mazurka Op 24 [4:34]
Troisième Mazurka Op 66 [5:28]
Thème varié Op 97 [7:45]
Feuillet d’album Op 169: Andantino [3:12]
Mario Patuzzi (piano)
rec. 2016 Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI Lugano - Besso, Switzerland
DYNAMIC CDS7796 [66:22]

Saint-Saëns was once described as the French Mendelssohn, since, like the German master, Camille Saint-Saëns was equally talented and precocious as a child, with interests by no means confined to music. Both made an early impression as a pianist, and, in accordance with established French tradition, Saint-Saëns was organist at the Madeleine in Paris for nearly 20 years, and taught briefly at the École Niedermeyer, where he befriended his pupil Gabriel Fauré. He was a co-founder of the important Société Nationale de Musique with the patriotic aim of promoting contemporary French music in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, in which he had served in the Garde Nationale de la Seine. Prolific and versatile as a composer, he contributed to most genres of music, though, by the time of his death in 1921, his popularity in France had diminished considerably, as fashions had changed.

Like Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns was a fine pianist himself, and wrote five piano concertos, which still get the very occasional airing, mainly the Second Concerto. He also wrote four works for piano and orchestra, of which the Valse-Caprice for piano and strings, ‘Wedding Cake’ Op.76 is probably the most frequently-played today. However, as far as the piano itself goes, Mendelssohn made significantly greater use of it both in his chamber music output, and solo, where his eight books of Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without words) make up a tidy proportion. Saint-Saëns, by comparison is probably best known to the modern solo-piano fraternity for the Étude en forme de valse, the final study in his six-piece Op.52 set. This latter piece is great fun to play, but demands the kind of technique that the composer himself possessed, to bring it off effectively in performance, or the likes of the late Hungarian virtuoso György Cziffra, who would give it as an encore from time to time.

Enter this new CD by Mario Patuzzi, clearly an attempt to introduce listeners, as well as pianists, to a greater selection of Saint-Saëns’s piano music and where, on occasions, the technical level isn’t as demanding as the Waltz mentioned earlier. The CD opens with a five-movement Suite: Prélude – Fugue – Menuet – Gavotte – Gigue. It begins with a toccata-like opening, which leads directly into the Fugue. Frankly there is nothing much here to grab your attention, and the fugue is very much the kind of thing students would have been expected to churn out in any six-hour fugue-paper – equally something that Bach would do, day in, day out, but where his usually sound convincing as pure pieces of music. The Menuet is fairly common-place, too, and remaining in the same key doesn’t do the composer’s ideas a great deal of extra service, bar a couple of mildly attractive little sections along the way. Perhaps a little bit of judicious pruning could have helped here. The Gavotte, teasingly, has an occasional jazzy feel but which never seems quite to come to full fruition. Again the final Bach-like Gigue isn’t greatly distinguished, though harmonically does have a little more originality to offer, especially at the close of each half. It could provide a reasonably entertaining recital encore, challenging enough, but not excessively so. The Improvisation that follows is quaintly endearing, and the chording, based on a rising four-note progression, conjures up almost Tristanesque harmonies at times, and cast in a lilting 6/8.

The Album pour le piano is a more substantial oeuvre, its six constituent movements running for some 25 minutes. The opening Prélude has more to offer and the piano-writing is more varied. Harmonically, too, there are some interesting twists and turns, and chordal juxtapositions that might make it more challenging to guess the composer, especially when he is probably best-known for such suave melodies as The Swan, from The Carnival of the Animals, or Delilah’s "Softly awakes my heart". The Carillon is perhaps not the most bell-like piece of piano music ever, and certainly evokes the sounds and timbres of some of Liszt’s late repertoire for the instrument. The Toccata that follows seems somewhat of a misnomer – it’s in 12/16 time, which would really make it a Tarantella, for indeed that is what it sounds like, ‘rather than a Toccata in the style, one would say, of Domenico Scarlatti’, as Danilo Prefumo’s sleeve-note informs us. Casually glancing through some of his over 600 works for solo keyboard, I haven’t seen many such Toccatas in compound time. Given the Carillon’s soundscape as reminiscent of late Liszt, this present Toccata isn’t a thousand miles away from Liszt’s own exemplar either. Either way this is quite a captivating piece of writing, and about the first time the CD has really grabbed my intention, assisted by Patuzzi’s crisp articulation and brisk delivery. The Valse that follows is pleasantly entertaining, and quite enthralling, with sufficient harmonic piquancy and chromaticism to lift it from the mere everyday three-in-a-bar waltz – and it does have a particularly nicely-fashioned ending. The Chanson napolitaine starts out almost as a ‘lugubrious gondola’, rather than as a high-spirited Neapolitan song, confirming once more a slight nod in the direction of Franz Liszt in its writing style, though which again produces an effective result. The Final: Allegro quasi minuetto, initially seems a somewhat tame closing piece, until a quite ethereal new section begins, where semiquaver (sixteenth notes) quintuplets in the right hand are heard against triplet quavers (eighth notes) in the left, and marked vivamente and leggierissimo (quickly and very lightly) – vaguely reminiscent of Chopin’s F minor Study, No.2 from the Op.25 set, and occasionally known as ‘The Bees’. Saint-Saëns does then return to the rather mundane material of the start, but not without a couple more fleeting references to the otherworldly section on the way to the close.

Then follow three Mazurkas which, as the sleeve-note points out, are in the prevailing Parisian salon style of the time, rather than anything really Polish or indeed Chopinesque. The first one, in G minor, which momentarily hints at Saint-Saëns’s own Danse macabre at the start, is probably the nearest they get. The second example, in the same key, does display folk roots to a degree, but its styles are so very mixed that only the rhythmic outline really maintains any connection with the original dance-form. The short and effective coda, marked espressivo, would clearly seem to have come from the same pen as the composer of Danse macabre. The final Mazurka in B minor is probably the least mazurka-like, but most French-inspired of the three, written some 20 years after the first, and again this has quite an unusual ending, harmonically-speaking.

The CD draws to a close with Thème varié – in the sleeve-note the grave accent (ˋ) is shown incorrectly as a circumflex (ˆ), which strangely also appears on the title page of the piano score by Durand et Fils (1894). The work begins with an impressive opening section, before introducing the theme itself – largely chordal, in crotchets (quarter notes) in the right hand over octaves in the left. The first variation develops filigree passage-work in one hand, mainly against the theme in the other, which roles the composer switches as the music unfolds. The second variation shifts the key from C major to F minor, changes from four to three beats in a bar, and slows the tempo significantly. The final section sets off initially in 2/4, in the key of B flat major, and picks up the tempo again, before the home key returns, and some passages in triplets propel the music on its way to an ending which, however, does sound more imposing in performance than its somewhat stilted posturing might, on paper, suggest, particularly the rather mundane C-major-arpeggios in double octaves. Again, though, it might make an interesting encore piece, given that, while it’s not a pushover to play, it is idiomatically written and appears impressive, at least on a superficial level.

Feuillet d’album was written in the last year of the composer’s life, and published posthumously the following year, 1922, his last opus number, in fact. Prefumo, in his sleeve-note, suggests that this simple, heartfelt, and decidedly tonal trifle, was the decidedly-conservative Saint-Saëns’s final comment on how contemporary music had changed, perhaps for the worst, since Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was first heard in Paris a few years earlier in 1913, and at a time when Saint-Saëns was still giving piano recitals in public, late into his 70s and beyond.

Patuzzi does his job well in bringing this selection of rare piano works by the composer to the greater attention of the listening public, and his playing is not only faithfully captured on disc, but, by using a contemporary Pleyel instrument for the purpose, definitely adds an extra dimension to the project.

This new release will certainly introduce you to over an hour’s worth of the composer’s music you are unlikely to have encountered before. If, though, you’re assuming it will sound like the Saint-Saëns you know and love, except played on a piano, then do expect to be surprised. Either way, there are some interesting pieces recorded here, some you will no doubt enjoy for their novelty, and others you equally might not.

Philip R Buttall

 

 




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