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Saint-Saens: The Complete Works For Piano And Orchestra
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Œuvres piano & orch. (Intégrale) / Concertos piano : N°1 op.17, N°2 op.22, N°3 op.29, N°4 op.44, N°5 op.103 - Rhapsodie d'Auvergne, op.73 - Allegro appassionato, op.70 - Africa, op.89 / Stephen Hough, piano - Orch. Symph. de Birmingham, dir. Sakari Oramo
Pianist Stephen Hough is a certified genius, recipient of a 2001 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." Although he apparently received the award for his explorations of uncommon piano repertoire, he also deserved it for the quality of his piano tone, which is extremely beautiful, as conveyed here by Hyperion's lush recording of the Saint-Saens piano concertos. Unlike most previous volumes of Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concerto series, this one includes some familiar works, especially the Second Piano Concerto. If you listen to that first, you'll realize just how good Hough's performances are throughout this set, since he matches any of the great pianists who have recorded the work. Notice the way he zips through the incredibly fast finale without the slightest hint of effort or rush. Although the Second, Fourth, and Fifth Concertos are the only ones still heard in our concert halls, all these pieces have their attractions--especially the delightful waltz "Wedding Cake," which would make a great concert encore. Sakari Oramo, the new music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, provides alert accompaniment, rich in detail, and the orchestra plays beautifully. This isn't an inexpensive set, but quality like this is cheap at any price. --Leslie Gerber
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Wrong. He is technically brilliant, as always, but there's little beauty of line here; it's just pyrotechnics with an orchestral accompaniment, though sometimes it seems as though they were playing independently of each other.
I haven't listened to my other recording of these works - the old one with Collard and Previn - in a long time, but I remember them having moments of great beauty. I just didn't get that here.
I debated whether to give this two stars or three. I leaned towards two, but given Hough's virtuosity I gave him the benefit of the doubt. However, given the price and quality differentials, if you like these works (or even if you don't), get the other one.
I have always been a fan of Stephen Hough, from the first time I saw his hands dissolve into an utter blur - not for one measure or passage, but for most of a fiery encore (we got three out of him that night!). These discs prove his facility with somewhat mellower fare, and have brought Saint-Saens back to my attention after years of (unintentional) neglect. If you want mighty and massive, Saint-Saens' German or Russian contemporaries will be more satisfying; but lyrical works like these should not be overlooked if you want to be acquainted with the best of the piano concerto form.
I seriously could not want for a better recording of these pieces. They rock.
Oh, and people seem to dislike the recorded sound, but it doesn't bother me at all. It makes me feel like I'm sitting on the bench turning Hough's pages, rather than being half way back in the hall.
If all you know is the popular Second Concerto, which some wag once claimed as traversing music history "from Bach to Offenbach," then you only know the shallowest of Saint-Saens' concertos. If you are not familiar with the Fourth Concerto, Saint-Saens' finest orchestral work, you should be. Built on the same architectural principles as the composer's popular Organ Symphony, this is more successful still and certainly more tasteful, though, as in the Organ Symphony, the finale is the weakest bit and keeps the concerto in the realm of the near-great rather than the great. Hough and Oramo lavish their best work on this concerto, and the performance is a winner, from the mysterious opening to the resounding appearance of the motto theme in chorale treatment by the brass. (After that, it's all downhill for the concerto anyway, as Saint-Saens ends with some especially empty display work for the pianist.)
Elsewhere, I find a lack of willingness on the part of the soloist and conductor to let the music expand naturally. This is especially true in the slow movement of the Egyptian Concerto (No. 5), which here lacks the requisite exoticism and even mysticism, I think. Ditto Saint-Saens' other North Africa-inspired piece titled simply "Africa." There may be something of the slapdash about this work anyway, though I enjoy it, but the performers give this less-than-vintage Saint-Saens no time to breathe, which it sorely needs if it is to survive at all. There's a tendency to rush the charming First Concerto, too, and there, despite all the brilliance, goes some of the charm. On the other hand, the underrated Third Concerto sounds imposing and even important in Hough's performance, and if he can't do much for the commonplace music of the finale, no one else can either.
One other problem has to do with the recording. In general, Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concerto series has featured fine, natural sound, but here the sound is very close and dry, with the piano placed in an unnaturally forward and rather airless perspective.
So while I'm, as always, impressed by the brilliance of Hough's playing in these concertos, I think something important is missing. And as fine as the Fourth Concerto and parts of the other concertos are in these performances, overall I prefer Jean-Phillipe Collard and Andre Previn. The sound on their EMI discs (catalog number 73356) is more recessed and maybe a little lacking in presence but much more realistic overall. And the performances have all the Gallic elegance that Hough and Oramo's lack. Add to this EMI's two-fer price, and you can't go wrong.
So if your budget allows for two sets of Saint-Saens concertos, certainly Hough's should be one of them. Otherwise, I think Collard is your man.