This CD is # 31 of Hyperion's astonishing series, “The Romantic Piano Concerto," which — using a variety of mostly British pianists, orchestras and conductors — has presented works by semi-familiar and utterly obscure composers, with the occasional Mendelssohn or Saint-Saëns set thrown in. Gabriel Pierné was once one of France's most prominent musical artists: a prolific composer (particularly of operas and other vocal music, ballets, chamber music, and keyboard works). He was the organist who replaced his former teacher César Franck at Ste. Clotilde after Franck's death, and he was later the esteemed conductor of the Concerts Colonne Orchestra. Born in 1863, a student of Massenet as well as Franck, a Prix de Rome winner, Pierné lived long enough not only to conduct the world premiere of Stravinsky's Firebird with the Ballets Russes and major Debussy and Ravel works with his own orchestra, but also to make important recordings of Berlioz and others before his death in 1937. Though none of the works on this Hyperion release represents a world premiere recording, all are most likely unfamiliar even to assiduous collectors and concertgoers.
Three of these four works date from the late 1880s (Pierné's mid-20s), years of much better known French piano-and-orchestra works: Franck's Symphonic Variations, D'Indy's Symphony on a French Mountain Air, Saint-Saëns' Africa (in between his Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos), and even Debussy's Fantasy. After several listenings I can't claim that any of the Pierné compositions provides the perennial joys of the Franck and D'Indy pieces, or of Saint-Saëns' last four concertos. But they do give pleasure, and the Scherzo-Caprice and Symphonic Poem seem to sound better with each hearing. As one expects of the Hyperion series, the performers are outstanding. Pianist Coombs also contributes valuable program notes.
The big work on the program (though a modest 20 minutes in length) is the Piano Concerto of 1886-7. Its sound world is that of Saint-Saëns, and indeed it follows the structure of the older composer's Second Concerto, with a scherzo taking the place of a slow movement. The solo piano opens the concerto maestoso, then takes the orchestra into a stormy allegro, which subsides enough for the piano to introduce two gentler tunes--the second of which gets a handsome grand restatement by the orchestra. A very foreshortened development and recapitulation take us into a delightful scherzo, and then to an agitato finale (some moments suggesting a French-flavored counterpart to the finale of Mendelssohn's First Concerto). The movement's rondo theme, despite some noble moments, seems more banal with each reappearance.
The oddly titled (for a piano piece) Fantasy-Ballet is quite entertaining, and could be a crowd-pleaser at a concert. It opens with a section for solo piano, ponderous and lyrical in turn, followed by another of those grand restatements by the orchestra, here over the piano's arpeggios. The rest of the piece is in 6/8 and 3/4 rhythms, with a variety of scherzando flavors and a tarantella finale. It all sounds extremely difficult to play, but Coombs carries it off breezily. The Scherzo-Caprice of 1890 has a more waltz-like lilt to it, and here Coombs plays with a wonderful gallantry and rhythmic energy.
The Symphonic Poem is from 1903. With its more chromatic themes, it echoes Franck more than Saint-Saëns. Brooding, mysterious passages lead to a more uplifting finale, and the piano is more fully integrated with the orchestra than in the earlier works. This piece should be heard by anyone who loves Franck's piano music.
Why has this music remained unknown to recent generations of music lovers? One could say that in these mostly youthful works Pierné lacks Saint-Saëns' genius for melody and Franck's ability to create an utterly distinctive sound world. Pierné's orchestral parts are quite conventional compared to Saint-Saëns, whose concertos have surprising solo woodwind flights and other interesting accompaniment. Pierné does use the solo trumpet well — jaunty in the scherzo of the Concerto, martial elsewhere — often soaring over the orchestra in an idiomatically French way. And the brass add a good deal to the texture of the Symphonic Poem.
My only quibble about the basically very good recording is that the sturdy, alert orchestral accompaniment is more recessed than I would like. But the piano writing is the main thing here, and Coombs' imaginative and sympathetic playing makes the greater emphasis on his piano seem only just.