Rhapsodie d’Auvergne Op.73 (1884)
Piano Concerto no.3 in E flat major Op.29 (1869)
Allegro appassionato in C sharp minor Op.70 (1884)
Piano Concerto no.5 in F major Op.103 ‘Egyptian’ (1896)
Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner
Chandos CHAN 20038 [66’51”]
Producers Mike George and Brian Pidgeon
Engineer Stephen Rinker
Recorded 13 January 2018 (Rhapsodie d’Auvergne), 20 & 25 February 2019 (other works), Media City UK, Salford, Manchester
Written by Ben Hogwood
What’s the story?
This is the second installment of Saint-Saëns piano concertos from Louis Lortie, Edward Gardner and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. It completes the cycle of five they have been recording for Chandos.
Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concertos tend to be overlooked in the concert hall, with only occasional performances for no.2 and no.5, which was written in part during a holiday in Egypt. Their neglect is unfortunate, as there is much to enjoy as the pieces unfold. The demands on the solo pianist may be considerable, but the rewards outweigh the effort required for sure.
What’s the music like?
This new release offers the Piano Concerto no.3 in E flat major, still a relatively early work, where Saint-Saëns builds on the influence of Beethoven and Liszt to create a piece with memorable themes and unusual formal devices. We then move to his later period and the Piano Concerto no.5, the ‘Egyptian’. This is a daring piece in the sense that Saint-Saëns was not following the trend of modern music set by the post-Wagner composers, or the new sound worlds offered by Debussy and Ravel. Instead he was writing for the virtuoso pianist in a descriptive and positive sense – conventional but stretching the established ‘rules’ of the concertos. This piece is ultimately fun and packed with tunes, while asking the soloist to achieve some pretty difficult technical feats. There is a faint exoticism capturing the carefree mood of the composer on vacation.
Topping up the positive outlook are the Rapsodie d’Auvergne and the Allegro appassionato, both shorter pieces for piano and orchestra with a similarly sunny outlook. The Allegro appassionato has more drive, while the Rapsodie is a breezy piece for the great outdoors. As the booklet writer Roger Nichols observes, it is based on a tune the composer ‘heard sung by a peasant washing her clothes in a stream in the Auvergne. As such, it is possibly the only folksong from France that Saint-Saëns ever included in his music’.
Does it all work?
Yes. This is extremely positive music, celebrating the combination of piano and orchestra with a good deal of energy.
The concertos are nicely balanced. The better known Fifth, stacked high with good tunes, finds Ed Gardner keen to develop its exotic air with the lush textures of the BBC Philharmonic strings in the first movement. There is a dramatic salvo to begin the second movement, where Lortie gets the melodic inflections just right, then an exotic minimalist passage towards the end, cutting to a real flight of fancy into the finale. Lortie gets a terrific substance to the sound of the lower end of the piano.
The Piano Concerto no.3 if anything fares even better, its status elevated well above the derivative thanks to the stress on its memorable themes. There is a heroic air to the piano part that Louis Lortie develops very nicely, and his commanding performance gives the piece its essential forward drive.
The Rhapsodie d’Auvergne is a bubbly piece, starting softly but gaining ground during the development of its theme. There are brief connections with Brahms before an effervescent and watery sequence, with excellent work in the right hand from Lortie.
Meanwhile the Allegro appassionato is a red-blooded affair very much in the vein of Liszt, asking the soloist for a few feats of athleticism while remaining close to the composer’s melodic heart.
Is it recommended?
Yes. This is an ideal release for banishing any lingering winter blues! There may be some really good recordings around already of the concertos, thanks to Stephen Hough and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo (Hyperion), and looking further back the classic 1980s recordings made by Pascal Rogé and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Charles Dutoit (Decca).
These sparkling new versions, beautifully recorded, offer a great deal of passion and panache, and at the very least take their place alongside the best..
You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Chandos website here