At last, the completion of Alexandre Kantorow's Saint-Saens Piano Concertos series. And what a magnificent set it is.
Well, I guess I've already revealed the verdict about this pair of recordings in my title above. But they really are so fabulous, I must write a few words.
What a splendid and astute idea/decision it was to combine the talents of father and son Jean-Jacques and Alexandre Kantorow for this set of the Saint-Saens Piano Concertos. Conductor/violinist Jean-Jacques has already proven himself quite a champion of Saint-Saens, having made a remarkable series of recordings of his music for BIS, including, most recently, the Violin Concertos and all 5 symphonies. Teaming up with his son for the Piano Concertos, #3, 4 & 5 were released in early 2019. And after a 3-year hiatus, it is cause for celebration the follow-up disc is finally here. For this is simply the best set of these concertos I have yet heard.
These are not easy concertos to bring off. And it's particularly difficult for a single pianist to make all 5 equally marvelous. The problems I encounter with most recordings lie mainly with tempos and the ability to illuminate the unique importance and musical riches of each one. To site one recent example, Louis Lortie's accounts for Chandos (CD-only, 2018/2020) are played so absurdly fast, the resultant melee renders the music breathless, flippant and rather unmusical. Edward Gardner is partly to blame, readily wrangling his orchestra along to keep up with the scramble every step of the way. As I noted in my review of it on this blog, just because you can play this music this fast doesn't mean you should! And to make matters worse, the Chandos recorded sound is not great, curiously returning to their 1980s bathtubby house sound, which I had hoped was gone forever. I don't know what went wrong there, but what a technical (and musical) blunder!
So it is with extreme pleasure that I turn my attention to the incredible pianism - and incomparable musicianship - of Alexandre Kantorow, who, incidentally, went on to become the first French pianist to win the gold medal (as well as the Grand Prix) at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2019. He restores all the integrity and artistry to these marvelous concertos that Lortie blatantly eschews. And he proves beyond a reasonable doubt that sensible, intelligently chosen tempos make all the difference in the world for musical correctness and satisfaction.
And the BIS engineers provide superb SACD recorded sound.
In addition to the 5 Concertos, BIS also offers us substantially more music than the companion set on Chandos. Disc One lasts 80+ minutes, and the second disc, with all the extras, contains an amazing 85 minutes of music! The Concertos are joined by Wedding Cake, Africa, the Allegro appassionato and Rhapsodie d'Auvergne. (The Chandos set sadly omits the first 2 of these.) And they certainly are not mere fillers. They are substantial works, performed with as much depth of musical appreciation and importance as the main offerings.
I have listened to the first disc many, many times over the past 3 years and its wonders never cease to amaze. There are very few recordings in my collection which I turn to again and again for sheer musical pleasure. This is one of them. There is an emotional involvement rarely encountered on a recording. And the sound quality is equally rewarding.
Listening with great eagerness to the new disc, I began with Wedding Cake and immediately smiled ear to ear upon hearing the unmistakable, sensational "ping" of a Steinway grand piano recorded with such accuracy and realism. What a remarkable and glorious sound this is to experience from a recording! It is this very quality which most record companies fail to capture realistically. The transient ping is either minimized (or dampened altogether) or reproduced with a glassy hardness, making the piano sound clanky or clangy. Not so here; BIS absolutely nails it. The percussive articulation of sound is created by a felt-covered hammer (not a hard wooden one) and the resulting "ping" resonates naturally from within the big wooden soundbox, cushioned on air, creating a most delectable sound ever so close to what one hears on a real, live Steinway.
Another big smile occurs with the first entry of the strings, singing with such an airy sound! This is another area where so many record companies fail - the airiness of string texture. The Tapiola Sinfonietta may be a chamber orchestra, but BIS captures their body of sound most realistically, providing a satisfying fullness combined with an airy transparency, placed within a spacious acoustic. The strings may be fewer in number but they're not thin. They are silky and richly textured. And surrounded by air. This is a difficult feat to accomplish, not only for the engineers but for the average stereo system to reproduce. But when everything is up to snuff, it is positively glorious.
I detail these sonic impressions as I listen to Wedding Cake, but can assure you these qualities are consistent throughout the entire set. (Only in the Second Concerto, recorded last, is the sound perhaps slightly less exemplary. But I'm being overly critical now.)
Regarding the set as a whole, musically, everything is simply marvelous. And let me just say that the piano playing is extraordinary. Even as one beholds the awesomeness of accomplishment and consummate musical interpretations on display, there is one word in particular which comes to mind over and over while listening to this gifted pianist: Leggiero. I don't want to get too technical here, but let me just quote the Groves Dictionary of Music for an illustration of what I mean:
LEGGIERO (Ital., also Leggieramente):
Lightly. The word is usually applied to a rapid passage, and in pianoforte playing indicates an absence of pressure, the keys being struck with only sufficient force to produce the sound. Leggiero passages are usually, though not invariably, piano, and they may be either legato or staccato; if the former the fingers must move very freely and strike the keys with a considerable amount of percussion to ensure distinctness, but with the slightest possible amount of force.
Fleet, ethereal and breezy also come to mind as descriptors of Kantorow's command of the keyboard, especially during difficult passages. His playing never sounds labored or heavy, but rather so utterly effortless, natural and musical. His legato is a marvelous expression of sweetly singing lines, reminding me more of a singer than a piano. It's actually difficult to describe, and is somewhat unique to Kantorow's style and technique, but leggiero seems the best musical term for it I can think of.
This is not to imply there is a lack of power and drama. Far from it. Those qualities burst forth as required, for everything about his playing is driven first and foremost by the spirit and letter of the score. Nor do sensible tempos imply a lack of adrenaline. Just the opposite actually. Rather than being possessed by a wild, out of control abandonment, which creates an uneasy foreboding the entire thing is about to fly off the rails (or worse, a flippancy which demeans the piece entirely), the firmness of control and authority, plus an absolute command of tempo, actually produce more exciting results than simply playing it as fast you possibly can.
Interpretatively, father and son are perfectly in agreement everywhere with regard to tempos, phrasing and overall scope. The interplay between soloist and orchestra and the perfection of ensemble are absolutely marvelous. The only instance which may initially cause a raised eyebrow is the finale of the Second, which really does seem too fast. However, checking the score, it is marked Presto. And it is the only movement in all 5 concertos which is. And when played with such gossamer adroitness and energetic bravura, I can't fault this pianist for taking advantage of the opportunity to fly free. And fly he does! And incredibly, this magnificent string section keeps up with him with phenomenal execution, power and sheer energy. And there is no denying it is dazzling. Elsewhere, as noted above, tempos are perfectly chosen - and exactly right - in every movement.
In sum, this is without doubt the best recording of these concertos (and showpieces) I have ever heard. Of the 5, I enjoyed #1, 3 & 5 the most, for their depth of musical expression and involvement, interaction between pianist and orchestra, and sheer excitement. And there is never any question as to this pianist's capabilities; he plays with a natural bravura without ever sounding ostentatious or flashy. But most of all, he and his father together engender an emotional impact I have not experienced from these concertos before.
I have read mixed reviews of this team's earlier recording of the Liszt Piano Concertos (2015, BIS). I have that disc in my collection but, curiously, have no recollection of its merits and can only assume I considered it rather unmemorable. But I can assure anyone who may have been disappointed with it (and are therefore hesitant to explore this pianist further), these Saint-Saens Concertos are in an entirely different league of excellence. They are simply magnificent in every way.