Composer, piano virtuoso, conductor, teacher – Camille Saint-Saëns was all of these things, but also a keen archaeologist, astronomer, botanist, historian, illustrator, poet, playwright… A seasoned traveller, he was the most famous French musician in his own lifetime, acclaimed in North and South America, the Middle East and across Europe. It is ironic, then, that his extensive and varied output isn’t better known today – except for a few works of which the most famous, Carnival of the Animals, is one Saint-Saëns himself had little affection for. Now often regarded as old-fashioned or even reactionary, we tend to forget that Saint-Saëns during his lifetime was sometimes heckled for the boldness of his works. Furthermore, he defended the music of the revolutionaries Wagner and Liszt, earned the admiration of figures as Berlioz, Debussy and Ravel and – in 1908 – composed one of the first original scores for a film!
Jean-Jacques Kantorow and the Tapiola Sinfonietta have championed the music of Saint-Saëns on a series of acclaimed albums, and are now joined by the young Alexandre Kantorow – son of the conductor – for a survey of his works for piano and orchestra. In 1858, Saint-Saëns became the first major French composer to write a piano concerto, but on this first release of two the Kantorows present the three last concertos. Composed over a period of almost 30 years (1868 – 1896), these are highly individual works: Piano Concerto No. 3 is a bold attempt to reconcile Classical form with a Lisztian pianistic brio, No. 4 employs an unusual formal scheme in which themes are reused in a cyclic manner and, finally, the ‘Egyptian’ (No. 5), named after the second movement, which in the composer’s own words describes ‘a sort of Eastern journey that goes all the way to the Far East’.
It is no hardship to review yet another Saint-Saëns piano concerto recording when it is as good as this. Believe me, Kantorow is the real deal – a firebreathing virtuoso with a poetic charm and innate stylistic mastery. I had forgotten just how demanding is some of the piano writing in No. 4 is but I have rarely heard it delivered with such commanding ease and infectious delight.
We seem to be undergoing a Saint-Saëns piano concerto bonanza, and this excellent disc could well take pride of place had it not been for Louis Lortie’s Chandos recordings, which are just that much finer still. The outstanding performances here are the Fourth and Fifth Concertos, the former cogently shaped and urgently projected, especially in the work’s latter stages. Alexandre Kantorow respects the music’s basic sobriety but still endows the outbursts of virtuosity with appropriate élan and sparkle. I can’t think of many performances of the second movement that make the music sound more purposeful.
– ClassicsToday (Robert Hurwitz)