Although best-known today for the delightful Carnival of the Animals, the rollicking Danse Macabre and the majestic Organ Symphony, the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was one of the greatest piano prodigies of the 19th century, composing five concertos for the instrument, alongside a body of solo works including 18 Études. Though rarely heard or recorded today, the latter are by turn charming, brilliant and fiendishly difficult, calling to mind the thrilling technical feats in the etudes of Liszt, who described his younger colleague as ‘foremost among French composers’.
It is one of today’s greatest French virtuosos, Bertrand Chamayou, who has taken up the pianistic challenge, presenting the composer as a true original hiding behind staunchly Romantic tradition. ‘I’m always charmed by Saint-Saëns,’ says Chamayou. ‘There’s an attraction to the exotic, the bizarre, sensual fantasy, that’s very curious for a composer that we think of as so academic. And there’s a real sense of voyage in the music of Saint-Saëns that I find fascinating.’ The new album is out 7 September.
Chamayou’s thoughtfully constructed programme draws together the two most famous of Saint-Saëns’s five piano concertos – the epic No.2 (1868) and the irresistibly exotic No.5 ‘The Egyptian’ (1896) – alongside a bouquet of lesser-known solo piano works. He is joined by the Orchestre National de France and its formidable conductor Emmanuel Krivine for an album that promises fireworks, champagne and just a few puffs of opium.
The Second and Fifth concertos were composed almost 30 years apart, moving from what Chamayou describes as the ‘poignant, theatrical’ grandeur of the 2nd Concerto’s opening Bach homage, mounting in speed and excitement for a blistering Tarantella finale, to the Egyptian’s sun-drenched, sparkling rhapsody and the exotic harmonies of the atmospheric second movement of a concerto that the well-travelled Frenchman completed in Cairo.
The seven etudes and virtuoso miniatures for solo piano that conclude the album are a rare delight for pianophiles. They include the effervescent yet notoriously difficult Étude en forme de Valse with its breathtaking bravura finale, and the entrancing Les Cloches de Las Palmas inspired by the bells Saint-Saëns heard ringing out in the Canary Islands. ‘There’s a very flamboyant Lisztian side, but at the same time the luminous clarity and translucent technique of Mozart,’ Chamayou explains.
On this album, Chamayou not only masters the intricacies of every finger technique in the composer-pianist’s arsenal, but voyages beyond the notes to reveal Saint-Saëns’s sensitive side. ‘The Étude for Major and Minor Thirds is so nostalgic and melancholy; he has the capacity to evoke so much in just four pages,’ he says. ‘I wonder why he didn’t open his heart like this more often. He would be better known today, but it’s now up to the performer to choose the pieces that shine light on the genius of this composer.’