GODARD Piano Concerto No. 1.1 Introduction and Allegro2. Symphonie Orientale • 1,2Victor Sangiorgio (pn); Martin Yates, cond; Royal Scottish Natl O • DUTTON 7274 (69:51)
The once popular, very prolific French/Jewish composer Benjamin Godard (1849–95) is vaguely remembered for many salon-style piano pieces, an encore or two for flute, and perhaps the Berceuse fromRead more his opera Jocelyn. In fact, he wrote eight operas and many works in larger forms: symphonies, concertos, and violin sonatas. This enjoyable collection of three premiere recordings, along with a 2008 Naxos release of two of his violin concertos, demonstrates that he could handle larger forms with ease. A Godard revival may be in the works, at least on recordings.
All of this music is well crafted, tuneful, and fun, with two individual movements that stand out as being more distinctive than the rest: the scherzo from the 1875 Piano Concerto, and the wonderfully atmospheric first movement, “Arabia: Les Éléphants,” from the 1884 Symphonie Orientale, which is a symphony only in the loosest definition of being a multimovement piece for orchestra. Actually, it sounds like very good ballet music through and through. Each of the work’s five movements takes its title from an “Oriental” country—Arabia, China, Greece, Persia, and Turkey—with little or no reference to their actual folk music other than the all-purpose use of “exotic” scales containing augmented seconds. The Arabian movement is inspired by a Leconte de Lisle poem that describes a procession of elephants being led across the desert by a patriarchal elder. Its walking bass line demands attention in a Berliozian way as the music grows and wanes in intensity.
Godard’s four-movement Piano Concerto is a spirited, showy work that never becomes overly aggressive or bombastic, the downfall of so many 19th-century vehicles in the Lisztian mold. My criterion for evaluating a newly recorded piece like this is to consider whether I would like to hear it in concert, and the answer here is unquestionably yes. It resembles and could easily substitute for a Saint-Saëns piano concerto. The aforementioned scherzo romps along at a restrained Allegretto non troppo and could stand alone as a charming, single-movement showpiece like the Litolff Scherzo or the Saint-Saëns Wedding Cake. The Introduction and Allegro is another good-natured showpiece, a perfect pops selection whose Allegro section had me picturing elephants again, this time in a Disney-like ballet.
The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is a first-rate ensemble and Martin Yates leads it with verve. The Australian pianist Victor Sangiorgio plays on an appropriately clangy instrument with all of the flair and technical command that the music needs, and Dutton provides vibrant recorded sound. A diverting, welcome disc.