Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos (Chandos/Erato)
★★/★★★★ (out of five)
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. Lortie, vastly experienced, plays 1, 2 and 4 on his release, never over-arguing the themes, allowing the listener to decide if they merit dusting off again in concert. Chamayou plays nos 2 and 5, interspersed with some little-known and truly delightful Etudes.
The point of direct comparison is the second concerto, a contest that Chamayou wins palms down. He brings a freshness to the interpretation, a sense of wonder and discovery. Emmanuel Krivine adopts flexible tempi and the Orchestra National de France play with something resembling passion. Lortie is more measured in his phrasing and neither the BBC Philharmonic nor conductor Edward Gardner sound like they’ve got the idiom.
Lortie, however, is totally convincing and very enjoyable in the fourth concerto and is by no means to be discarded. Where Chamayou triumphs unexpectedly is in the fifth concerto, overcoming the cringe factor of a European imitating Arab music and giving full value to the composer’s invention. I’m left curious to hear Lortie’s next sortie and absolutely avid to hear Chamayou’s.