SAINT-SAENS: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 4 (Idil Biret/ James Loughran/ Mark Brown/ Philharmonia Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550334)
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CamilleSaint-Sa?½ns (1835 - 1921)
PianoConcerto No.2 in G minor, Opus 22
PianoConcerto No.4 in C minor, Opus 44
CamilleSaint-Sa?½ns enjoyed a long and prolific career as a composer. As a younger man he was aleading supporter of newer tendencies in French music: in old age his opposition toDebussy, whom he outlived by three years, earned him a deserved reputation as an enemy ofwhat was seen as progress. His later critics, who could hardly dispute his technicalcommand, wrote of bad music well written, an unmerited jibe at a composer who had achievedmuch in a variety of fields. An admirer of Mozart, he was known to some as the FrenchMendelssohn, and his music always possessed the clarity of form and texture common tothese earlier composers, elements that influenced his friend and pupil Gabriel Faure and,vicariously, Faure's own pupil Maurice Ravel. Gounod referred to him as the FrenchBeethoven, and these flattering comparisons are evidence of the esteem in which he washeld.
In his personal lifeSaint-Sa?½ns was not always fortunate. As a boy he was brought up by his mother and hisgreat-aunt, two women to whom he was devoted, the latter his first teacher. His marriageat the age of 40 to a 19-year-old, to his mother's marked disapproval, was predictablydisastrous and was brought to an end, after the death of his two young sons, throughillness and accident. In 1881 Saint-Sa?½ns, on holiday with his wife, simply walked out,never to return. For the remaining forty years of his life, and particularly after thedeath of his mother in 1888, he lavished affection on his dogs and on his pupil Faure,whom he had first met as a student at the Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris in 1861.
Saint-Sa?½nsas a boy showed quick intelligence, wide interests and considerable musical precocity. Heentered the Paris Conservatoire in 1848, a year after the death of Mendelssohn, and metwith considerable encouragement from Berlioz, among others who were impressed by his giftsas a composer and as a pianist. The second of his five piano concertos, the Concerto in G Minor, Opus 22, was written in thespace of seventeen days in 1868 at the request of Anton Rubinstein, with Saint-Sa?½ns assoloist. The same concert brought a greater contemporary attraction in Sarasate'sperformance of the composer's first violin concerto, welcomed more warmly by the audience.
Liszt, however, gave his gracious approval and encouragement: Saint-Sa?½ns impressed him,and was, in any case, one of the few French pianists to perform Liszt's own pianotranscriptions.
Theconcerto opens with a cadenza over a long, sustained note, followed by a first expressivetheme, succeeded in turn by a second subject, again entrusted first to the soloist. Thesecond movement is introduced by the timpani and relies on two contrasting themes ofmarkedly different character, the first very much in the spirit of a scherzo, and thesecond of overtly popular character. In the last movement Saint-Sa?½ns displays hiscommand of brilliant piano-writing, ending the concerto with considerable panache.
Whateverthe immediate reaction of the Cirque d'hiver audience -and critics had at least found thethemes of the scherzo catchy enough - Saint-Sa?½ns immediately turned his attention to thecomposition of a third piano concerto, to be performed for the first time in Leipzigbefore an unenthusiastic audience. The fourth concerto was written in 1875. It promptedGounod's flattering comparison of its composer to Beethoven. Less conventional than itspredecessor in form, the work is in two movements. The first of these offers a themeshared by soloist and orchestra and duly developed, before the appearance of a secondsection, an Andante in A flat. The second movement starts with a scherzo, thematicallyconnected with the first movement, which later makes an open appearance, as does a lyricalepisode from the second section of the first movement. A cadenza leads without a breakinto a transformed version of the first movement Andante theme in a finale that includesfurther reference to earlier ideas, giving the whole work a thematic unity not found inthe other piano concertos of Saint-Sa?½ns.
Bornin Ankara, Idil Biret began piano lessons at the age of three. She displayed anoutstanding gift for music and graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with three firstprizes when she was fifteen. She studied piano with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, andcomposition with Nadia Boulanger.
Sincethe age of sixteen she has performed in concerts around the world playing with majororchestras under the direction of conductors such as Monteux, Boult, Kempe, Sargent, deBurgos, Pritchard, Groves and Mackerras. She has participated in the festivals ofMontreal, Persepolis, Royan, La Rochelle, Athens, Berlin, Gstaad and Istanbul. She wasalso invited to perform at the 85th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Backhaus and at the90th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Kempff.
IdilBiret has received the Lily Boulanger Memorial Fund award (1954/1964), the HarrietCohen/Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal (1959), the Polish Artistical Merit Award (1974) and wasnamed Chevalier de l'Ordre du Merite (1976).
PhilharmoniaOrchestra, London The Philharmonia gave its first concert at London's King sway Hall underSir Thomas Beecham in October 1945, and rapidly became recognised as one of the world'struly great orchestras. As such it was able to attract such legendary conductors asFurtwangler, Toscanini, Cantelli, Richard Strauss and, principally, Herbert von Karajan.
ThePhilharmonia remains the world's most recorded orchestra, its ever expanding discographycontaining over 800 recordings. As 'Britain's musical ambassador abroad', the orchestra'sschedule for 1989/90 includes visits to the USA, Hong Kong, Australia, Spain, Germany,Austria, Italy and Holland.