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Camille Saint-SaŽns: Piano Concertos Nos. 2, 4 and 5
Stephen Hough, piano; SakariOramo, conducting
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Review By Joe Milicia


  Part of Hyperion Records' celebration of their 30th anniversary in 2010 was this reissue of an award-winning disc originally recorded in 2000 as #27 in the label's indefatigable (and invaluable) series "The Romantic Piano Concerto." Though I don't find it quite as dazzling as did the Gramophone editors who awarded it Record of the Year in 2002 and a Gold Disc Award in 2008, it certainly is a fine introduction to the best-known of Saint-SaŽns' five piano concertos.

No. 2, by far the most popular of the set, is given a performance that is perhaps special in its very avoiding of extremes. The dramatic opening solo is not given the "mad scientist playing Bach" treatment, and the finale is not a race to the finish at breakneck speed, as some soloists and conductors make it, though our artists definitely do not drag. I did miss a certain sparkle and insouciance in the scherzo, as Artur Rubenstein brought to his classic RCA performance with Alfred Wallenstein (currently available in a Hybrid SACD edition).

No. 3, structured like the composer's ĎOrgan' Symphony in having two double movements ó fast/slow, scherzo/finale ó receives a performance with more energy and grandeur than I recall in any other recording, especially in the finale, though the scherzo is pretty exciting too, especially for its woodwind contributions.

No. 5, often subtitled "Egyptian," was indeed completed in Cairo (20 years after No. 4), though only the second movement has a Middle-Eastern flavor (with one melody supposedly taken from the song of a Nile boatman). The opening of this movement, however, is distinctly Spanish, and the author of the booklet essay hears a Javanese influence too. (Saint-SaŽns, like seemingly everyone else, heard the gamelan orchestra at the 1889 Paris Exposition.) In any case, Hough and Oramo beautifully manage the many transitions between styles and moods, and during the arabesque passage near the end of the movement Hough somehow makes his piano sound like a more exotic instrument ó a cimbalom perhaps. Saint-SaŽns wanted his joyful finale to convey the exhilaration of a sea-crossing (though I can't quite hear the "thudding ship's engines in the opening bars," according to the notes), and the performance at hand provides all the high spirits one could want.

Hyperion's recording is splendidly realistic in capturing Hough's sound, which is more pearl than crystal, neither metallic nor limpid. The orchestra is a little more recessed than I'd like ó the strings seem well behind the piano, at least on my equipment ó but the woodwinds speak out vividly.





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