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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 29 (1869) [27:11]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor, Op. 44 (1875) [24:39]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103, ‘L’Égyptien’ (1896) [27:47]
Alexandre Kantorow (piano)
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Jean-Jacques Kantorow
rec. 2016 (Nos. 4 & 5), 2018 (No. 3), Tapiola Concert Hall, Finland
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2300 SACD [80:37]

It’s good to see Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos gaining traction these days, especially as the focus so often falls on his ubiquitous ‘Organ’ Symphony. The latest recordings of these winning works include: Nos. 2 and 4 with Bertrand Chamayou and the Orchestre National de France under Emmanuel Krivine (Erato 9029563426); Louis Schwizgebel and the BBCSO conducted by Fabien Gabel and Martyn Brabbins in Nos. 2 and 5 respectively (Aparté); and the Naxos/Romain Descharmes traversal of all five with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra directed by Marc Soustrot. I heartily recommend Vols. 1 and 2 of that cycle, but Vol. 3, which pairs the fourth and fifth concertos, is a major disappointment.

Chamayou, Schwizgebel and Descharmes, all in the thirties, are fine pianists, but the stellar talent here is the young Alexandre Kantorow (b. 1997). I first encountered this remarkable Frenchman in eloquent and insightful accounts of the three Liszt concertos, also with the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by his father, Jean-Jacques (BIS). I described the then teenager as a ‘virtuoso of rare sensitivity and good taste’. I was similarly impressed by his well-filled solo album, à la russe, whose ‘zephyrs and whirlwinds’ simply confirmed his many talents (BIS). That said, when it comes to Saint-Saëns’s output for piano and orchestra, it’s the scintillating Stephen Hough, with the CBSO and Sakari Oramo, who’s still the one to beat (Hyperion). Indeed, these vital, spontaneous performances from 2000/2001 are a must-have for pianophiles and fans of this composer alike.

The recorded sound of Hough’s and Descharmes’ Op. 29 is bright and clear, so I was disconcerted, albeit briefly, by the unusually dark-toned opening to Kantorow’s reading. At first I thought this signalled a less-than-lively presentation, only to realise we’re hearing the instrumental weight/body that most rivals seem to miss. Indeed, Arcantus engineer Martin Nagorni’s production has all the tonal richness and overall sophistication that makes Jens Braun’s Liszt so special. (Take5’s Braun is listed as the producer this time around.) Happily, Kantorow fils gives a very attractive performance of the piece, the quieter moments of the opening movement well shaped and nicely nuanced. The orchestra, sounding wonderfully aerated in the ensuing Andante, then match the soloist’s urge and sparkle in the concluding Allegro. In short, a terrific start to this enticing programme.

The fourth and fifth concertos were recorded two years earlier, when this phenomenal pianist was not yet twenty. The former, a shadowed and more introspective work in two movements, is thoughtfully done, its pianistic flourishes a pleasing foil to those dark, declamatory timps. Again, the recording is beautifully detailed, the piano especially alluring in the opening Allegro moderato - Andante; as before, balances are entirely natural. Ultimately, though, it’s the soloist who deserves the most credit here, given his surefooted sense of style and structure. Meanwhile, Kantorow père proves an alert and judicious accompanist, notably in the now animated, now inward Allegro vivace - Andante - Allegro. He and his Finnish players certainly match the soloist in terms of felicitous phrasing and finely calibrated dynamics. It’s very different from the sheer momentum and brilliance one gets with Hough, for instance, but the deeper rewards of this new album are immense.

At this juncture I’d planned to revisit Hough’s accounts of Nos. 4 and 5, but decided there was little point, as I was so engaged - nay, captivated - by the young Kantorow’s magical, multifaceted readings of both. Schwizgebel’s performance of the exotic fifth is essential listening, though, yoking as it does a keen intellect with all necessary impulse. That said, he’s not as limpid, as ravishing, as Kantorow in the gentler musings of the Allegro moderato. As for the spiced rhythms and timbres of the remaining movements, they’re supremely well pitched and caught; in fact, there’s a sudden - and sustained - sense of presence, of ‘being there’, that adds immeasurably to one’s enjoyment of the music. It’s all so poised and proportionate, yet that energetic dash to the finish line is as exhilarating as it gets. (Goodness, I hope there’s more to come from this talented team.) Jean-Pascal Vachon’s excellent liner-notes complete this top-flight release.

Alexandre Kantorow eschews runaway virtuosity for something much more thoughtful and illuminating; très extraordinaire.

Dan Morgan

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