Who makes most sense of Saint-Saens?

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

Camille Saint-Saëns was the first Frenchman to compose piano concertos. Of the five that he wrote between 1858 and 1886, only the second gets much play and one hears few claims that the rest are scandalously neglected. Some connoisseurs consider the fourth his best. Most agree that the fifth, a pastiche of tunes supposedly sung by Egyptian boatmen at Luxor, falls somewhere between embarrassing and irredeemable.

The Canadian pianist Louis Lortie and the young Frenchman Bertrand Chamayou have kicked off cycles of the concertos on their respective labels….

Read on here.

And here.

En francais ici.


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  • The musicologist, Donald Tovey, referred to Saint-Saëns’ style as: “slick romanticism”. Rather unfair: people think his music is too enjoyable to be any good.

  • “…the first Frenchman to compose piano concertos” That’s surely a joke, how about Jadin, Hérold, Alkan, or basically every virtuoso in 1800-1850 Paris?

  • My old Decca set, conducted by Charles Dutoit and with Pascal Rogé as soloist, will do me fine. As, indeed, do the Ravels, by the same artists. In Rogé’s hands, the Egyptian sounds a perfectly respectable work.

    • You are not, by any chance, the Michael Endres whose recordings on the Capriccio label of five of Schubert’s piano sonatas have given me so much pleasure over the years? If you are, get back into the recording studio, man, and complete the cycle! Could be you already have, of course, but I haven’t been aware of it. Are you still active as a performer?

      • Thank you for your nice compliments !
        The cycle is completed and other Schubert works have followed since.
        My website is up to date, it can be easily found on Google.

    • Thank you, Michael, for this wonderful find. One forgets what a wonderful musician Cortot was . Oh that recent winners of piano competitions could be as poetic as he was

  • I hate the 2nd, so am totally open to hearing the other PCs. But I also recall liking his second cello concerto, which one never hears. And is first two violin concertos are also quite decent (#2 usually pretty neglected).

    Then again, I also like Bruch’s 2nd violin concerto, and I like Tchaikovsky’s 2nd PC much more than the first.

    • I actually had forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that Bruch *had* a second violin concerto. I’ll have to give it a listen. (I’ve always had a soft spot for the first.) Never really liked the Saint-Saens PCs but it’s been years since I’ve really tried to listen to them — apart from the occasional performance of the popular Egyptian on the radio — so maybe I should give them another go.

    • I don’t want to be nosy, but where does this “hate” of SS’s Second PC come from? Has it upset you in some way? Or are you just trying to be different, given some of your other preferences?

  • I would heartily recommend Muse et Poete played by Augustin Dumay and Gomziakov,
    A fine and rare, much neglected double concerto for violin and cello.
    Quintessential SaintSaens.

      • It’s a concerto that is so virtuosic it demands a very long time to learn it and it’s a catch 22 situation that it really appears on the concert platform , although it is becoming more popular with many interpretations on YouTube. It’s an intensely lyrical dialogue between the Muse and the poet

        The Dumay gomziakov interpretation is by far the best

  • Scandalously neglected? The 2nd is great, the 4th & 5th are worth playing- but does anybody need the 1st or 3rd? They aren’t even worth the paper they’re printed on.

  • I must not have any taste — I like most everything I’ve heard by Saint-Saens. We played his 2nd symphony once. It’s a lot of fun. And the slow movement of the Organ Symphony is a wonder.

    His works do need a good interpreter, though: if you overdo the virtuosity and lose the elegance, then they can sound like hackneyed garbage. Pascal Rogé’s set of the piano concerti goes a little too far in the other direction for me: almost too elegant, so that some of the virtuosity (and fun) is lost. You need someone who has plenty of both, like Stephen Hough.

    • Actually, SS is an unusual composer. In a period of romantic cultivation of emotionalism and sentiment, and the loosening of structural discipline, and in France a climate of superficial sentimentality, SS persued a classical, objective position. After he had lived through quite some turmoil in his private life, he consciously took the opposite road towards objective beauty and formal sophistication. That is why he thoroughly hated Debussy when he got famous and widely imitated – thinking Debussy was simply cancelling the idea of structure altogether, which would lead to complete dissolution of the art form. SS even attended the premiere of the Sacre and got quite confused by the bassoon solo at the beginning, asking people around him: ‘What is that instrument? What could that, for God’s sake, be?’ He believed in tradition, but alas his understanding of tradition was quite restricted.

  • Examples of piano concertos written by French composers prior to Camille Saint Saens:

    1. Edouard Lalo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YN4_XxUPgus
    2. Ferdinand Herold: (wrote 4 of them) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yO_x8X8uMlc
    3. Charles Gounod: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_9W5ER0tS4
    4. Adrien Boildeau: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoLo4UF0sOY
    5. Ignaz Pleyel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLjlQQDXVKw
    6. Charles Valentin Alkan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLyUD1ndyeI
    7. Hyacinthe Jadin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Srhhajt8Amk

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