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Camille SAINT-SAЁNS (1835-1921)
Rhapsodie d’Auvergne Op 73 (1884) [9.25]
Piano Concerto no.3 Op 29 (1869) [25.42]
Allegro appassionato Op70 (1884) [5.39]
Piano Concerto no.5 Op103 ‘Egyptian’ (1896) [25.39]
Louis Lortie (piano)
BBC Philharmonic/Edward Gardner
rec. 2018/19, MediaCityUK, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20038 [66.51]

This current disc features the third and fifth piano concertos as well as the ten-minute Rhapsodie d’Auvergne and five-minute Allegro appassionato, with Edward Gardner conducting the BBC Philharmonic and Louis Lortie, Chandos’s “house pianist”, on piano. It follows an earlier disc by the same team, which received mixed reviews (not helped by the plethora of discs of these works which have suddenly appeared.)

Either the record companies or the concert promoters have got it wrong. Your chances of hearing Saint-SaŽns’ fifth piano concerto – the “Egyptian” – on a concert platform are as likely as meeting a mummy lurching down the High street. Yet a quick count comes up with no fewer than a dozen new discs of this splendid work since 2010 – and all of them reckoned to be at least acceptable. It’s called the Egyptian because Saint-SaŽns completed it in the winter of 1895-6 during a trip to Luxor. One is supposed to be able to hear croaking frogs, chirping crickets and a Nubian love song sung by boatmen on the Nile, and the regular thumps in the left hand in the final movement are ship’s propellers during the sea crossing. What I hear is something Spanish and a touch of gamelan music (he heard Javanese music at the 1889 Paris exhibition.) There’s even a bit which sounds to me like Tchaikovsky ballet music. Whatever, it’s a riot. But when Stephen Hough made what is reckoned to be one of the best modern recordings of the work back in 2001 (Hyperion CDA67331/2) it came under the banner of the Romantic Piano Concerto series (number 27, actually) as if it was an obscure and previously unknown concerto by some Lisztian wannabe of the nineteenth century. In fact, it’s a well-constructed, exciting work, full of originality, melody and colour, written by a much-maligned genius. Mind you, so are his other four piano concertos.

My comparison is with the fifty-year-old version by Aldo Ciccolini, the Orchestre de Paris and Serge Baudo conducting, because that’s the way I first heard it and am therefore most familiar with. The performances are still available as a download (Warner Classics 2435692585). There’s a moment about 4.30 into the first movement which seems to me to set the tone; Aldo Ciccolini and Serge Baudo pull back to allow a grand statement of the theme, where Lortie and Gardner plough relentlessly on. I find the new disc too fast in the third movement as well. It’s wonderful that Lortie can even play it at that speed, but it works against expressiveness.

The third concerto was never Saint-SaŽns’ most popular; indeed, there were punch-ups in the corridors at its premiŤre in Leipzig in 1869. Faurť, however, rated it. This new version of the third concerto is almost five minutes quicker than the old Ciccolini one, and again, this seems to hinder expression. The third movement is marked “allegro non troppo”; here, I think it is troppo. The Allegro appassionato sounds like the first movement of an unfinished concerto, somewhere between numbers 4 and 5; I wanted to hear the rest of it. The Rhapsodie d’Auvergne starts slowly and romantically, but morphs into a perky folk tune from the region. It’s great fun.

From a sound point of view, the recordings are full and expressive, but do not seem to me to be quite up to Chandos’s usual high standards. They are quite close, which makes for heavy going in music which should be light, bright and sparkling (and French.) However, the balance seems better in Lortie’s third than in his fifth, with the piano not quite so far forward. I hear the BBC Philharmonic in the flesh quite often, and the third sounds more like them (and their superb woodwind band) than the fifth.

Some wonderful music and masterly playing, then; but whether it matches the best of the many versions out there is another story.

Chris Ramsden

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