SAINT-SAËNS:  Piano Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 17.  Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22.  Piano Concerto No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 29.  Piano Concerto No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 44.  Piano Concerto No. 5 in F, Op. 103 "Egyptian."  Wedding Cake, Op. 76.  Rapsodie d'Auvergne, Op. 73.  Allegro appassionato, Op. 70.  Africa, Op. 89
Stephen  Hough, pianist/City of Birmingham Symphony Orch/Sakari Oramo, cond.

HYPERION CDA 67331/2 (2 CDs) (DDD)  TT:  79:34 & 75:46

Charles Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), referred to as "the Grand Old Man of French Music," started the study of the piano when only 3 and gave his first "concert" a year and a half later. After this he studied at the Paris Conservatory and privately with Charles Gounod. Highly regarded as an organist, he wrote the first of his five symphonies when only 16 after which he composed profusely, his works including, in addition to the symphonies, 3 operas, four symphonic poems (including Omphale's Spinning Wheel in 1871 which was the first French symphonic poem), much chamber music, works for solo piano, and ten concertos: five for piano, three for violin and two for cello. He abhorred new paths in music, and was one of the leaders of dissent at the Paris world premiere in 1913 of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. He also disapproved of Debussy and, of course, Schoenberg. Saint-Saëns was a prolific author including his essay Anarchy in Music, in which he states, "For me art is form.  Expression and passion seduce the amateur...for the artist it is different. An artist who is not fully satisfied by elegant lines, harmonious colors and beautiful harmonic progressions has no understanding of art." Saint-Saëns loved to travel, often visiting Algeria, the Canary Islands, Egypt and Spain.  He died in Algiers in 1921 at the age of 86.

Saint-Saëns was a superb pianist as well as one of the leading organists of his era. His five piano concertos were written from 1858 to1896, Concerto No. 1 in 1858, the earliest work in this form by a major French composer; the others followed in 1868, 1869, 1875 and 1896. Concerto No. 2 is best-known of the five.  Artur Rubinstein favored it, making four recordings, the first in 1939 in France (REVIEW). This is the concerto that starts with a rather solemn piano solo, the work described by Oscar Levant as a concerto that begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach.While all of the concertos are showy for the soloist, imaginative and beautiful to hear, only the Concerto No. 4 has considerable musical substance. In 1935 Alfred Cortot made his famous recording with Charles Munch conducting (REVIEW). It was a favorite of Robert Casadesus who recorded it twice for Columbia with the New York Philharmonic, first with Rodzinski, later, in stereo, with Bernstein.  EMI has been most active in recording these concertos. They made the first complete recording, by Jean-Marie DarrÈ with the French National Radio Orchestra directed by Louis Fourestier, currently available on CD only in Europe. In the late '70s Philippe Entremont recorded them also for EMI with the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra under Michel Plasson, and later recorded Nos. 2 and 4 with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra for Columbia. Aldo Ciccolini's 1970 EMI set with Serge Baudo and Orchestre de Paris was once available (769443), and Decca currently lists a set with Pascal RogÈ and Charles Dutoit leading London orchestras made about two decades ago (Decca 43865). In the late '80s EMI made another set of all five with Jean-Philippe Collard, AndrÈ Previn and the Royal Philharmonic; only No. 1, coupled with the four non-concerto pieces, remains available (EMI 49757). The catalog also lists a complete set on Vox with Gabriel Tacchino and the Luxembourg Radio Orchestra conducted by Louis de Froment (CDCX 3028). Emil Gilels and Benno Moiseiwitsch also made recordings of Concerto No. 2, as did Sviatoslav Richter of the seldom-heard Concerto No. 5. The latter is totally enchanting, as the composer gives his colorful impressions of Egypt, a country he loved and visited often.

Hyperion's new recording is a smashing success in every way. Stephen Hough, who made the spectacular 1986 Chandos recording of two concertos of Hummel (CHN 8507), plays with consummate brilliance tossing off the endless pages of pianistic filigree with the greatest ease, sltyle and beauty of tone. Tempos are always on the brisk side and one can't help but wonder if the desire to fit all of this music onto two CDs might have been a factor—both CDs are packed. It is a plus to have not only the five concertos but the four other delectable works for piano and orchestra. The City of Birmingham Orchestra and Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, who has been conductor of the orchestra since 1998, provide splendid support with full-bodied brass and rich strings. Produced by Andrew Keener and engineered by Tony Faulkner and Mike Clements (Concerto No. 3), the sound is exemplary.  Right from the beautiful handling of the echoing horn calls at the beginning of Concerto No. 1 we can tell this is first-class all the way.

R.E.B.(Oct. 2001)