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Hyperion Records

CDA67331/2 - Saint-SaŽns: The complete works for piano and orchestra
CDA67331/2
Recording details: September 2000
Various recording venues
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: September 2001
Total duration: 155 minutes 20 seconds

GRAMOPHONE GOLD DISC AWARD
GRAMOPHONE RECORDING OF THE YEAR 2002
PENGUIN GUIDE ROSETTE
DIAPASON D'OR

'Marvellous performances, full of joy, vigour and sparkle. The recording is in the demonstration bracket and this Hyperion set includes no fewer than four encores. An easy first choice' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Superlative' (The Independent)

'Superb … Hough’s new set in Hyperion’s outstanding Romantic Piano Concerto series sweeps the board' (The Guardian)

'It is unalloyed pleasure to sit through all five at a sitting … the quite outstanding pianism of Stephen Hough makes this an unmissable addition to anyone remotely interested in the barnstorming, physically exhilarating concertos of the late nineteenth century' (International Record Review)

'A delightful set that does this underrated composer full credit' (Classic FM Magazine)

The Romantic Piano Concerto
The complete works for piano and orchestra
CD1
Andante sostenuto  [10'08]
Presto  [6'09]
Andante  [6'16]
CD2
Allegro moderato  [11'18]
Allegro vivace  [13'24]
Allegro animato  [10'11]
Molto allegro  [5'49]

It is surprising, given the popularity of the repertoire, that all the recordings of Saint-Saëns' complete concertos currently before the public pre-date the CD era and none of them are fully digital. In addition it has never before been possible to obtain all the composer's output for piano and orchestra on only two CDs. For these reasons alone this latest addition to the 'Romantic Piano Concerto' series is likely to become one of the most successful of all. The Gramophone 'Record of the Year' winning team of Stephen Hough and the CBSO are joined by their new principle conductor Sakari Oramo in performances which combine all the elegance required for the Frenchman's music with the utmost bravura. Saint-Saëns himself was a formidable pianist and his rare 1904 (!) 78rpm recording of Africa has until now been matchless; finally in Stephen Hough's performance he has a rival.

With so much in its favour we are quite confident that this new cycle of these piano concertos will become the benchmark recording for many years to come.


Other recommended albums
'Moszkowski & Paderewski: Piano Concertos' (CDA66452)
Moszkowski & Paderewski: Piano Concertos
'Parry & Stanford: Piano Concertos' (CDA66820)
Parry & Stanford: Piano Concertos
'Vivaldi: Lute and Mandolin Concertos' (CDA66160)
Vivaldi: Lute and Mandolin Concertos
'Beethoven: String Quartets' (CDH55021/8)
Beethoven: String Quartets
MP3 £24.99FLAC £24.99ALAC £24.99 CDH55021/8  8CDs Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Deleted  

Introduction  EnglishFranÁaisDeutsch
As a young man Saint-Saëns boldly championed progressive and controversial figures such as Schumann, Liszt and Wagner, but it now seems surprising that he himself was also regarded as one of the more innovative composers of his time. Although his Danse Macabre may strike us as no more than an imaginative but innocuous piece of whimsy, an 1875 performance under Pasdeloup drew a barrage of catcalls and booing from the audience. The American composer Arthur Foote recalled in his autobiography that Saint-Saëns’s music ‘came to us as a stunning novelty’, while the critic Georges Servières observed ‘always something of the fanciful even in his most academic works’.

However, Saint-Saëns’s reverence for tradition became more obvious in later years, contrasting with the increasingly radical paths taken by his progressive contemporaries. By now he was regarded as a pillar of national culture – the Grand Old Man of French Music – and he even witnessed the unveiling of a statue in his honour. The new musical developments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – as represented by Debussy and Stravinsky in particular – horrified him. His hostility towards these trends, virulently expressed in essays such as ‘Anarchy in Music’, marked him out for ridicule and contempt, while his own well-mannered, restrained musical style appeared outdated beside such revolutionary works as the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Le Sacre du Printemps and Pierrot Lunaire. As the composer and critic Alfred Bruneau remarked in a speech at his tomb: ‘Tradition captivated him more than innovation. In defence of it, when he felt it threatened, he fought with vivacity, courage and extraordinary violence’.

Saint-Saëns’s acerbic writings undoubtedly contributed to his fall from favour, and to the one-sided view of him (which prevails even today) as an old-fashioned and therefore uninteresting composer. If we are to assess fairly the importance of his contribution to nineteenth-century music, we must ignore his more belligerent essays and judge his numerous and diverse compositions on their own terms.

His principal aims were clarity, simplicity, conciseness, balance and freedom from exaggeration, and his success in combining these qualities must be acknowledged along with his versatility. He also typifies the avoidance of the portentous or pretentious which is generally characteristic of French music. As he wrote, in what amounts to his artistic creed: ‘For me art is form. Expression and passion seduce the amateur … for the artist it is different. An artist who is not fully satisfied by elegant lines, harmonious colours and beautiful harmonic progressions has no understanding of art’. He scorned those ‘amateurs’ with a passion for the obscure and outlandish, who turned up their noses if the instruments of the orchestra did not ‘run in all directions like poisoned rats’. Similarly, he wrote on another occasion: ‘Art is intended to create beauty and character. Feeling only comes afterwards, and art can very well do without it. In fact it is very much better off when it does’. These statements are curiously reminiscent of Stravinsky’s oft-quoted belief that music is essentially powerless to express anything. It is ironic that Saint-Saëns’s music was criticised for its lack of emotion not long before neo-classicism – the perfect antidote to the excesses of Romanticism – enjoyed such a vogue.

Paradoxically, Saint-Saëns’s own pioneering achievements were backward-looking, in the sense that he deliberately cultivated the classical forms such as symphony, concerto and sonata at a time when these genres were neglected in France in favour of the far more popular opera and operetta. It is well known that French composers generally have either avoided these classical forms altogether or, where they have attempted them, have been much less successful than their counterparts in the German tradition. Yet it was none other than Saint-Saëns, with ten concertos to his credit, who made the most extensive contribution to this particular form, not just in France but in the context of nineteenth-century music in general. In spite of considerable opposition (by 1904 the progressive faction in Paris was regularly causing a disturbance during any performance of a concerto in the Concerts Colonne), he was responsible for leading a determined revival of interest in these traditional forms, striking an unashamedly patriotic blow for French music in the face of German dominance. In February 1871, just before the end of hostilities with Prussia, the Société Nationale de Musique had been founded by Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Massenet, Duparc and others ‘to aid the production and the popularisation of all serious musical works … of French composers; to encourage and bring to light all musical endeavour … on condition that there is evidence of high artistic aspiration on the part of the author’. The damage to French pride following eventual defeat by Prussia acted as an extra spur to restore some cultural and intellectual credibility.

The sheer number of Saint-Saëns’s symphonies, concertos, sonatas and other chamber works is remarkable enough, but even more significant is the fact that so many of these works are among his finest and most representative achievements.

Saint-Saëns’s five piano concertos span nearly forty years – more than half of his creative life. Remarkably diverse in character, they possess many features which justify his contemporaries’ comments regarding his novelty or fancifulness. Although only the Second Concerto has a regular place in the repertoire, each of these works is revealing of the composer’s strengths. One does not seek here the profundity, heroic tone or rigorous musical argument which are often found in the greatest concertos by the German Romantics. However, his five piano concertos are constantly diverting and characterful, and they represent an important link in the development of the form. Clearly, the composer’s profound love of tradition did not preclude such striking originality of structure as we find in Concertos 2 and 4, or the slow movements of Nos 1 and 5. Indeed it is odd that his contribution to the development of the symphonic poem (amounting to four works) seems to have stimulated far more comment than the Fourth Concerto, a composition of far greater formal interest and idiosyncrasy.

Saint-Saëns’s approach to the combination of piano and orchestra was to treat the two elements as equals, and the challenge of achieving this balance was one of the aspects of concerto-writing which most appealed to him. Interestingly, even though he had been a brilliant performer from a very early age, extravagant or flamboyant piano-writing for its own sake held little attraction for him. He wrote conspicuously fewer major works for solo piano than any other important composer-pianist in history. While he fully acknowledged the expressive potential of virtuosity (‘a powerful aid to music, whose range it extends enormously’ … ‘it gives the artist wings to help him escape from the prosaic and commonplace’ … ‘the conquered difficulty is itself a source of beauty’), his piano concertos are far from being exercises in bravura. Even at its most virtuosic, his keyboard-writing is colouristic in effect, and is usually characterised by warmth and elegance rather than brash posturing. While the influence of Liszt is indisputable, the Hungarian’s more flamboyant style is tempered through its assimilation into Saint-Saëns’s own musical language. Mendelssohn is another general influence of perhaps greater importance, as the two composers shared the same facility, urbanity and tastefulness.

Saint-Saëns’s First Piano Concerto, composed in 1858, was the earliest work in this form by a major French composer. (His serious intentions regarding concerto form were underlined by the appearance of his first two violin concertos in 1858/9.) Saint-Saëns recalled at the end of his life that this piano concerto had been inspired by the Fontainebleau Forest, where he used to picnic with friends. The concerto is a delightful but sadly neglected work, its outer movements imbued with unclouded optimism and youthful vigour. It begins arrestingly with antiphonal horn calls. Both this rising theme and the woodwind melody heard soon afterwards are incorporated into the main body of the movement (‘Allegro assai’), but perhaps the most attractive idea is that which is introduced by the violins with triplet accompaniment in the piano.

In the strikingly original second movement, in which the accompaniment is greatly reduced to strings, clarinet and bassoon, Saint-Saëns creates a haunting and rather improvisatory atmosphere with typical economy of means. In the cadenza-like solo passages (often notated without bar-lines), the wonderfully fluid, almost impressionistic writing, marked ‘rapido e delicato’, seems to anticipate Ravel by a good fifty years. Towards the end of the exuberant finale, the opening theme of which is shared between piano and orchestra, the very first two melodic ideas in the work are recalled, now transformed in keeping with the irrepressible mood.

Saint-Saëns composed his Second Piano Concerto in 1868. One of its many original features is the tempo gradation of its three-movement plan – ‘Andante sostenuto’, ‘Allegro scherzando’, ‘Presto’. The extended solo passage which opens the work – an obvious homage to Bach – originated in one of the composer’s improvising sessions at the organ. (Saint-Saëns was widely recognised as the greatest organist of his day, and his skill at improvisation – an art which he valued highly – is clearly related to the abundance of cadenza-like passages in these concertos.) The principal theme of this movement is not actually by Saint-Saëns, but was borrowed from Fauré, who had decided against using it in an early Tantum ergo. A spirit of Mendelssohnian delicacy hovers over the second movement, while Saint-Saëns’s individual and mischievous wit is evident in the timpani solos, soon imitated by the piano left hand. A bustling tarantella rhythm propels much of the finale, but the development section is dominated by a trill-obsessed figure from the second subject, while the woodwind intone a chorale-like melody.

The Third Concerto was composed in 1869, soon after No 2. A constantly engaging, original and fascinating work, it is undeserving of its reputation as the weakest of the five. At its premiere in the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the indeterminate tonality at the beginning of the slow movement caused a fracas among a rowdy element of the audience. The first movement opens with a simple but marvellously effective wash of piano arpeggios, apparently inspired by Alpine waterfalls. Against this background a majestic theme (superficially reminiscent of the opening of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony) is heard, initially shared between horn, clarinet and bassoon. Such a description may well suggest a potent, typically Romantic atmosphere, but actually this opening is informed by Saint-Saëns’s characteristic objectivity of tone. While broadly observing classical sonata-form structure, Saint-Saëns constantly modified its conventions. For instance, his fondness for cadenza-like passages contributes a more flexible and rhapsodic quality. Thus, in the opening movement of the Third Concerto, the inclusion of cadenzas both before and after the animated and inventive development section gives the structure an unorthodox twist.

The slow movement – after the initial instability – creates a poignantly beautiful atmosphere. Its second main theme is a bold striding melody for the soloist’s left hand only, while the central section of the movement is characterised by tenderly poetic piano figuration. Following without a break, the finale begins with an anticipatory orchestral section, before the piano bursts in with a robust, swaggering theme. This movement has tremendous, infectious energy, with exuberant cascades of notes in the solo part. Nevertheless, one contemporary critic, presumably disturbed by the importance of the orchestral contribution, hailed it as signalling ‘the death of virtuosity’!

The Fourth Piano Concerto is a one-off, a work of remarkable structural unity unparalleled in the context of the nineteenth-century concerto. It ranks among Saint-Saëns’s finest and most original works. Completed in 1875, the concerto is superficially related to the composer’s Third Symphony of 1886, the uniqueness of which he acknowledged in saying ‘What I have done I shall never do again’. Both works are constructed in two main sections (subdivided) and demonstrate the skilful transformation of themes. Though much less frequently performed today (at one time it rivalled the popularity of No 2), the concerto is arguably more completely successful than the symphony, as it avoids the latter’s grandiose, bombastic tendencies. Artfully constructed, it admirably combines intellectual mastery and popular melodic appeal, while its themes are also remarkably varied in character. The first movement opens with a concise, understated theme divided into two distinct halves. The layout of the theme itself, and that of the variations which follow, epitomises the composer’s equal treatment of piano and orchestra.

In the ‘Andante’ section a serene chorale melody, quietly introduced by the woodwind, is subsequently treated in the grandest manner. The reflective conclusion of the first part is preceded by a remarkable passage which is effectively an accompanied cadenza. The second part begins with a scherzo section based on a lively chromatic theme from the first part, and soon the very opening theme of the concerto is playfully recalled as a counter-melody. A new 6/8 theme, splendidly uninhibited in its bounding rhythm, is introduced by the piano, and the triumphant concluding section of the work, following a fugal passage, is dominated by an affirmative triple-time version of the original chorale melody.

Saint-Saëns loved to escape from the unattractive Paris winters and travel to warmer locations such as Algeria, the Canary Islands or Egypt. (His equal affection for Spain, enhanced by his friendship with the virtuoso violinist Pablo Sarasate, is evident in occasional passages of Spanish influence throughout these concertos.) Nearly twenty years after Opus 44, he completed his Fifth Piano Concerto in Cairo in 1896. While many French composers of this period were under the pervasive influence of Wagner, Saint-Saëns displayed his independence of mind in this refreshingly sunny work, the orientalism of its central movement again revealing his taste for novelty. The name by which it is occasionally known – the ‘Egyptian’ – is unhelpful, as the central movement (the only one with any direct exotic influence) has at least as much Spanish flavour, while two solo passages with unusual chord-spacings are reminiscent of the sound of gamelan music, casting doubt on the composer’s reported lack of enthusiasm for the Javanese music performed at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. Indeed the varied influences in this wonderfully fascinating movement seem to reflect much more generally the composer’s love of travel. (Other places which he visited include Russia, South America, the United States, Scandinavia and Indo-China.) However, definite Egyptian influence is heard in a beguiling G major section based on a Nubian love-song which the composer heard being sung by Nile boatmen. A subsequent oriental melody is accompanied by impressions of chirping crickets and croaking frogs (according to the composer), with subtle contributions from clarinet and gong, and again there is some impressionistic figuration which reminds us that Ravel was an admirer of Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos.

The limpid opening movement exudes a warmth and serenity which suggest more generally the benign influence of the Middle Eastern climate. Its genial simplicity and charm are thoroughly characteristic of the composer’s finest music. While the sheer volume of notes in the solo part creates extreme technical demands, the effect is of a sparkling brilliance like the sun’s rays on a fountain.

Saint-Saëns remarked that the spirited finale expressed ‘the joy of a sea-crossing, a joy that not everyone shares’. It includes simple pictorialism such as imitation of the thudding ship’s engines in the opening bars, while the second main idea typifies Saint-Saëns’s tendency to rhythmic obsessiveness. The composer adapted this movement as the final piece (‘Toccata’) from his Second Book of Piano Studies, Opus 111, completed in 1899.

The majority of Saint-Saëns’s shorter concertante works – sixteen in all – are rarely performed. Of the four pieces for piano and orchestra the most colourful is the Fantasy Africa, begun in Cadiz in 1889 and completed in Cairo in 1891. In need of convalescence after serious illness and the death of his mother, Saint-Saëns embarked on a cruise which took him to Ceylon for nearly three months, and then, on the return journey, to Egypt. His study of North African folk music is reflected in this attractive pot-pourri, with its abundance of melodic material, much of it syncopated. The climax is based on a Tunisian folk-tune.

The Valse-Caprice, Opus 76, for piano and strings dates from 1886. Its ‘Wedding Cake’ nickname, while justifiable on account of its origin as a wedding present (for the composer’s pianist friend Caroline de Serres), has unfortunate connotations. Far from being a glitzy confection, the piece is a captivating gem, beautifully written and wholly characteristic of the composer’s art.

In 1884, soon after the premiere of his opera Henry VIII, Saint-Saëns completed both the Allegro appassionato, Opus 70 (not to be confused with a work of the same title for cello, Opus 43) and the Rapsodie d’Auvergne, Opus 73. The second of these pieces incorporates a tune which the composer heard a washerwoman singing in a mountain village, and is a rare example of his use of a melody from a region of his own country.

Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2001


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'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 61' (CDA67950)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 61
MP3 £6.99FLAC £6.99ALAC £6.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 96 kHz £10.50ALAC 24-bit 96 kHz £10.50 CDA67950  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 62 – Gounod' (CDA67975)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 62 – Gounod
MP3 £6.99FLAC £6.99ALAC £6.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 96 kHz £10.50ALAC 24-bit 96 kHz £10.50 CDA67975  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 63 – Godard' (CDA68043)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 63 – Godard
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 96 kHz £12.00ALAC 24-bit 96 kHz £12.00 CDA68043  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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