Following the acclaimed release of Piano Concertos Nos 1, 2, and 4 in September 2018, Louis Lortie completes his survey of Saint-Saens’s piano concertos with this recording of Concertos Nos 3 and 5, once again with Edward Gardner and the BBC Philharmonic. Composed in 1869, the Third Concerto received its premiere in Leipzig with the composer at the piano, and met an extremely hostile reception (it even incited punch-ups in the corridors!). Most probably due to the composer’s harmonic experimentation, this might also have followed from the stylistic divergence from his (extremely successful) Second Concerto. His final Piano Concerto, No. 5, written some twenty years after the Fourth, was composedRead more largely during his stay in Egypt during the winter of 1885 and spring of 1886. Saint-Saens wrote it to play himself at the jubilee concert celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his performing debut in the Salle Pleyel. The second movement’s initial theme is based on a Nubian love song that he had heard sung by boatmen on the Nile. This, and later the impressionistic evocation of the sound of frogs and crickets, led to the adoption of the nickname ‘Egyptian.’ Lortie completes the album with two smaller works for piano and orchestra, both from 1884. The Rhapsodie d’Auvergne is an impressionistic evocation of the spectacular part of central France referenced in the title; the Allegro appassionato offers a virtuosic romp for soloist and orchestra alike.
There have been a lot of new recordings of Saint-Saëns inventive and always enjoyable piano concertos recently, but this series featuring Louis Lortie and Edward Gardner with the BBC Philharmonic looks set to become the new version of reference. It started unassumingly with short piano pieces (including The Carnival of the Animals) as fillers for the equally fine Chandos recording of the two cello concertos, but no one could have guessed that the performances to come would be this great. What makes them special is Lortie’s complete lack of preciosity. For once, we understand the sympathetic relationship between Saint-Saëns and Liszt–for this is virtuoso music, and it deserves to be played that way.
You hear this most obviously, of course, in the quicker music, especially the thrilling finale of the “Egyptian” Concerto. But it’s not just that Lortie plays it quickly–the performances reveal an unprecedented level of detail in both the solo and orchestral parts. There’s genuine interplay between the piano and the accompaniment, thanks in large part to Edward Gardner’s equally bold and beefy accompaniments. Certainly, Lortie has the touch and sensitivity to deliver the music’s more poetic moments such as the opening of the Third Concerto, and the central movement of the “Egyptian,” but I can’t think of any other versions that convey as much pure, physical joy as these.
The couplings are equally splendid, especially the rarely heard Rhapsodie d’Auvergne, which is wholly delightful. Toss in first rate engineering, and the result is a mandatory acquisition for anyone who loves this composer, or this music.