Listening to this CD, I was transported back to the days when record players had two speeds. You used the fast speed for your little 45s, and the slow speed for your big LPs. And sometimes you'd forget to change the speed back, and you'd accidentally play a 33-1/3 record at the 45rpm speed. You'd laugh at your forgetfulness and cringe at how it was twice-too-fast and sounded all thin and bright! Well, that's exactly what I thought of when I listened to this new Chandos CD. (No SACD by the way; just good old fashioned CD).
Listening to the 5th Concerto first, the first thing I noticed was the funny sound. This really reminded me of the 1980s Chandos characteristic house sound - you remember it, right? - shallow, echoey, tubby, lacking warmth and fullness, and with tinkley piano tone. (I always thought of it as "bath-tubby".) And by the time I got to the 3rd movement, the tempo is so absurdly, ridiculously fast, I simply laughed out loud at how comedic it sounded. It really sounds like playing an LP at the wrong (fast) speed.
And what an engineering blunder that the central movement of this concerto is recorded at a higher volume level than all the rest. I had to turn the volume down a couple notches here and then back up again for the finale.
The 3rd Concerto fares slightly better regarding tempos, until the 3rd movement (marked Allegro non troppo, by the way) which is once again ludicrous. The free-for-all melee is one of the most unmusical, ostentatious displays I can recall. And the odd recorded sound persists all through.
Not for a moment am I "impressed" with Lortie's ability to play this music this fast (although that alone is remarkable). I was actually amazed that Gardner could keep up with him. And at first I wanted to blame Gardner for the absurd speeds, as he is often guilty of this very thing. But no, Lortie establishes and sustains these tempos and just pedals his way through it. Musical values are tossed aside in the scramble and it's a race to the finish line. And it sounds absolutely looney tunes.
Surely I'm being too hard on this CD, right? So I pulled from my shelves the glorious new recording of these same concertos by Alexandre Kantorow for BIS. I was instantly rewarded with a much more natural, spacious, lovely-sounding recording of a piano concerto. I also was reminded what sensible, MUSICAL tempo decisions can bring. Saint-Saens's musical genius was restored and it all makes sense. Going back to the Chandos and all I can say is: Just because you can play it that fast, doesn't necessarily mean you should.
This is the second Chandos CD in a row I've been disappointed with (the other being Eric Coates Orchestral Works Vol 1, John Wilson conducting). A quick check revealed both discs utilize the same orchestra - the BBC Philharmonic. Chandos seems to be having some difficulty recording this orchestra in its preferred venue. I hope they will reassess their recording techniques here. We had our fill of the 1980s Chandos sound and do not want it back. Ever.