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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor, Op. 44 (1875) [26:30]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103 ‘Egyptian’ (1896) [28:46]
Romain Descharmes (piano)
MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra/Marc Soustrot
rec. 2015, MalmŲ Live Concert Hall, MalmŲ, Sweden
NAXOS 8.573478 [55:21]

The Saint-SaŽns Fourth and Fifth piano concertos have been gaining a little currency of late but still fall far behind the Second in popularity, the composer’s only keyboard concerto in the standard repertory, or at least hovering around the fringes of it. This Naxos disc is part of a series to record all of the Saint-SaŽns piano concertos by French pianist Romain Descharmes, and at this point only the Third remains. Conductor Marc Soustrot has already done the five symphonies for Naxos with this same fine MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra. From what I have sampled of that cycle, their work was first-rate and well worth investigation by Saint-SaŽns’s admirers.

Here, the pianist delivers very convincing accounts of both concertos. True, he can be a bit on the expansive side in his tempo choices, and also somewhat finicky. In the Fourth’s two-part first movement, the orchestra plays the main theme at the opening at a judicious tempo and then Descharmes holds back a bit from the pace in his statement of it. But such moments are relatively rare. While a leaner and livelier approach in both concertos, as with Stephen Hough on Hyperion, might be preferable for some, Descharmes makes a good case for his somewhat deliberate but detail-rich way.

In the second half of the Fourth’s first movement, Descharmes phrases the lyrical, sort of hymn-like theme with great feeling and then delivers the variations that follow with insight and utter elegance. Notice the many gradations and nuances in his dynamics, all imaginatively employed here. In the second movement, again with a two-part structure, he plays with both charm and subtlety. The final portion finds the pianist deftly integrating the scintillating with the stately to yield a most colorful account of this music.

The Fifth requires a slightly different approach from the soloist because Saint-SaŽns proves once again that he was quite a versatile fellow. In the first movement, he seamlessly moves from a suave and often playful manner to a rich Romantic one, and then, in the ensuing panel, to an exotic character; hence the nickname ‘Egyptian’. Descharmes effectively captures every mood change in this chameleonic work, and plays with utter confidence and secure technique throughout. The middle movement is especially effective here, and it would be hard to imagine anyone playing it significantly better. The Finale is an irresistible creation, and this performance of it is outstanding. Both soloist and orchestra impart delightful effervescence to the music as busy and often bouncy rhythms serve to undergird the chipper and spirited themes. This a magical and sparking account. All the music’s vibrant colors emerge with an infectious joy and energy.

Descharmes obviously has a natural grasp on the composer’s multi-faceted style, and clearly gets to the expressive soul of both these works. One notices here that Saint-SaŽns is sometimes auguring neo-Classical styles while retaining and even developing certain Lisztian elements in his writing. Speaking of those Lisztian elements and other pianistic challenges in these concertos, Descharmes measures up to them with ample virtuosity but not at the expense of musicality.

Marc Soustrot and the MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra provide excellent support throughout both works and Naxos delivers vivid, well balanced sound reproduction. If Saint-SaŽns’s piano concertos are of interest to you, then you certainly will not be disappointed by these fine performances.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Dan Morgan


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