Saint-Saens: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 5 (CD review)

Also, etudes, mazurka, Allegro appassionato, and valse. Bertrand Chamayou, piano; Emmanuel Krivine, Orchestre National de France. Erato 0190295634261.

French composer, conductor, organist, and pianist Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) wrote five piano concertos. Of the five, the Second and Fifth are probably the most famous, which, by no coincidence, is what we have on the present disc, played by French pianist Bertrand Chamayou, accompanied by French conductor Emmanuel Krivine and the French National Orchestra, and recorded by the French record label Erato. You might say it's all-French affair.

Saint-Saens wrote the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 in 1868, and, as I say, it remains among the most-popular of his piano concertos. Oddly for a modern concerto, Saint-Saens begins the work with a relatively slow movement, followed by a faster second movement that resembles a scherzo, and finishes with a very quick Presto. These mercurial tempo changes prompted the Polish pianist and composer Zygmunt Stojowski to joke that the piece "begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach."

I should tell you here that up until hearing Chamayou my favorite recordings of the concertos have been with Jean-Philippe Collard on EMI/Warner Classics, as well as Stephen Hough on Hyperion. Now I have to reconsider those top choices, at the least adding Chamayou to them. His dazzling, detailed finger work in the opening section of No. 2 is hard to resist from the start. He then goes on to produce more excitement than most other pianists combined in this work, if not quite as much lyrical beauty. In all, I'd give Collard the nod in poetry and Chamayou the edge in warmth and fervor.

Bertrand Chamayou
Piano Concerto No. 5 "Egyptian" Saint-Saens wrote in 1896, some twenty years after his fourth piano concerto. It has the nickname "Egyptian" because the composer wrote it in Luxor, Egypt, and because the music is among his most exotic, displaying Spanish, Asian, and Middle-Eastern influences. Saint-Saens explained that the music represented a sea voyage.

The opening Allegro alternates between slow and fast segments; the central Andante begins with an introductory blast before settling into its more lyrical section; and the piece ends with an energetic Molto Allegro, the opening of which simulates the sound and feeling of a paddle-wheel boat up the Nile.

As with the Second Concerto Chamayou is consistently faster than most of his rivals, sometimes surprisingly so. If you regard Saint-Saens as a master of dramatic contrasts, juxtaposing sections of sheer, luxuriant composure with passages of intense, almost riotous passion, then Chamayou's interpretation should appeal to you. It did to me.

In addition to the two piano concertos, Chamayou provides seven short, lesser-known solo pieces: Etude Op. 111 No. 4 "Les Cloches de Las Palmas"; Etude Op. 52 No. 6 "En forme de valse"; Mazurka Op. 66 No. 3; Etude Op. 111 No. 1 "Tierces majeures et mineures"; Allegro appassionato Op. 70; Etude Op. 52 No. 2 "Pour I'independance des doigts"; and Valse nonchalante Op. 110. Chamayou's playing is as brilliant here as it is in the concertos, with buoyancy, ebullience, detail, and opulence aplenty.

Producers Daniel Zalay and engineer Catherine Derethe recorded the concertos at the Auditorium, Radio France, Paris (concertos) in December 2017 and April 2018. Producer Vincent Villetard and engineer Catherine Derethe recorded the solo pieces at the same location as the concertos in April 2018. The clarity of the piano is superb, among the best I've heard. Moreover, in the concertos the engineer integrated the piano fairly well with the orchestra instead of the soloist being a mile out in front. The orchestral accompaniment is also nicely transparent, without being too strident or hard. The whole affair is miked a trifle close for my liking, but it's a minor concern and no doubt accounts for the recording's excellent clarity. Because of the closeness, too, there is not quite so much natural hall resonance present (for some reason more noticeable to me in the Second Concerto than the Fifth), but again it's a small price to pay for the overall lucidity of the production.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa