Saint-Sa‘ns, Franck

COMPOSERS: Franck,Saint-Sa‘ns
LABELS: Decca
ALBUM TITLE: Saint-Sa‘ns
WORKS: Piano Concertos: No. 2 in G minor
& No. 5 in F (Egyptian)
Variations symphoniques

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PERFORMER: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano); L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Charles Dutoit

CATALOGUE NO: 475 8764
We can see from Saint-Saëns’s critical writings how passionate he was about opera – and not only his own contributions to it. But it’s also clear from them how much he valued moderation, balance, clarity and all the things the French traditionally have held dear. His piano concertos are fascinating works on many fronts, but not least for the balance they seem to hold between the wild Romantic and the contained Classical composer.

Thibaudet subscribes rather to the latter view. Saint-Saëns’s rhythms are respected, where Stephen Hough occasionally bends them, if not like Beckham, then at least with an ear to how they might have been treated in the opera house. I wouldn’t want to decide between these two fine pianists, who both give tremendous performances, technically and artistically, of these taxing works. But it’s entirely predictable that in the Finale of No. 2 Hough’s Presto is poised manically on the edge of impossibility, while Thibaudet’s, though quite fast enough, respects the dancing, tarantella quality that Saint-Saëns may well have had in mind. In the Franck he does not, in the opening dialogue, tease us with the prospect of emotions that he cannot then deliver: he starts coolly and the work warms gradually under his fingers. The Victoria Hall, Geneva may not have such a velvety sound as Symphony Hall, but the balance is good.

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Roger Nichols