Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos 1 & 2 - Kantorow, Kantarow
Classical - Orchestral
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos 1 & 2, Valse-Caprice 'Wedding Cake', Allegro appassionato, Rhapsodie d'Auvergne, Africa
Alexandre Kantorow (piano)
Jean-Jacques Kantarow (conductor)
In 2019, Alexandre and Jean-Jacques Kantorow’s recording of the last three piano concertos by Camille Saint-Saëns earned the highest praise around the world, including a Diapason d’or de l’année, Editor’s Choice in Gramophone and top marks and recommendations from the leading German web sites Klassik Heute and Klassik.com. The Kantorows’ orchestra of choice was the Finnish ensemble Tapiola Sinfonietta, and they have now returned to Helsinki to record not only Saint-Saëns’ first two concertos, but all of the remaining works for piano and orchestra.
Presented on this amply filled disc, the programme spans 33 years, the earliest work being Concerto No. 1, regarded as the first significant French piano concerto and written by a 23-year old composer. Ten years later, in 1868, Saint-Saëns composed the Concerto in G minor, a work which at first met with consternation although Liszt – who was present at the first performance – thoroughly approved of it. The work, which begins with the soloist playing what resembles the improvisations of an organist, soon became popular however, and remains one of Saint-Saëns’ best-known works. The shorter pieces which make up the rest of the programme were written between 1884 and 1891, and could be said to reveal different aspects of the composer: Wedding Cake was written as a wedding present to a close friend, in Rhapsodie d’Auvergne Saint-Saëns explored French folk music, while Africa is a piece of pure Orientalism, reflecting his lasting affection for North Africa.
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- Camille Saint-Saëns: Africa for Piano and Orchestra, R. 204 Op. 89
- Camille Saint-Saëns: Allegro appassionata for Piano and Orchestra in C sharp minor, R. 37 Op. 70
- Camille Saint-Saëns: Caprice-Valse for Piano and Orchestra, R. 76 Op. 76 'Wedding Cake'
- Camille Saint-Saëns: Concerto for Piano No. 1 in D major, R. 185 Op. 17
- Camille Saint-Saëns: Concerto for Piano No. 2 in G minor, R. 190 Op. 22
- Camille Saint-Saëns: Rhapsodie d'Auvergne for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73
Review by John Broggio - May 23, 2022
A generally thoroughly enjoyable disc.
The opening work, Piano Concerto No. 2, is given a very thought-provoking interpretation of the first movement. In these hands, the Kantorow's are much freer interpretatively than most (perhaps all) other accounts on disc and certainly on hi-res media. Here, the entire movement is treated as an improvisatory rhapsody and they adopt a daringly slow general tempo. This does allow for more contrasted episodes of rubato which really gets the pulse moving. I personally found this approach completely persuasive but I can see why others may be a bit shy of liking their performance which (at times) seems to want to dissolve the bar lines. For a more "traditional" approach to this movement, I would recommend Rachmaninov, Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos No. 2 - Rubinstein, Ormandy over Saint-Saëns: 5 Piano Concertos - Malikova, Sanderling despite the limitations of the sound. The rest of the concerto is played very excitingly indeed here, especially in the thrilling finale. Compared to Stephen Hough's much lauded cycle, the tempos are a bit slower but all to the listeners gain for no matter how dexterous Hough's account is, many of the details get lost in the comparatively congested recording - the slightly more relaxed tempi allow's Kantorow to vary his timbre in a way that the sheer speed precludes Hough from doing likewise. As with the whole of the disc, there is a constant rapport between all the musicians who play off each others nuanced phrasing in a most appealing way.
The first concerto is given a wonderfully refreshing reading; there is nothing amiss in the performance of Malikova and Sanderling but the musicians here spark off each other in a way that is lacking on the Audite set. The way that phrases in the orchestral winds lead to the piano and then back again in such a spontaneous sounding manner is something that readily withstands repeated listening. The use of a chamber orchestra is perhaps what gives the music making such strong rapport throughout because it is very much more a dialogue with than a competition between each protagonist.
In between the first concerto, we are treated to the Valse-Caprice "Wedding Cake" and the Allegro appassionato (not an arrangement of the work for cello). Both these are played with alternatively delightful insouciance and weight as demanded by the score. Again, Alexandre Kantorow is audibly more relaxed in the Allegro appassionato than Hough but the same considerations apply as from the second concerto; it's definitely not slow here, just slower and arguably characterised with greater contrast. To close the disc, we are treated to the wonderful two short concertante works Rhapsodie d'Auvergne and Africa. Good accounts of Africa and "Wedding Cake" are also found on Saint-Saëns: Cello Concertos, Carnival of the Animals - Mørk / Lortie / Mercier / Järvi, this account of the Rhapsodie is the only recording on hi-res media to date. Like for Lortie, Alexandre Kantorow enjoys having a responsive orchestra and conductor as partners, which extends into Africa; the way the musicians allow the music to dance away to a triumphant conclusion is a marvellous end to the disc.
The sound is well up to the house standards of BIS and is both far richer and clearer than that afforded to Hough and Malikova; there is so much more of the scores to be heard and felt here and we are finally allowed to hear and feel it.
Very highly recommended.
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