Saint-Saens’s Etudes offer an intricate and scintillating panoply of the French school of technique (the basis and prophecy of what Jean-Philippe Collard so mischievously called Marguerite Long’s ‘diggy-diggy-dee’ school of piano playing). Yet as Piers Lane tells us in his alternately wry and delightful accompanying essay (obligatory reading for all lovers of French pianism), they can be as evocative (‘Les cloches de las Palmas’) as they are finger-twisting (‘En forme de valse’, to name but one). The left-hand Etudes, too, given their self-imposed limitation, are a fragile and poetic surprise. In other words Saint-Saens’s Etudes are more comprehensive than their equivalents by, say, Moszkowski or Lazare Levey (superbly recorded by Ilana Vered on Connoisseur Society and Danielle Laval on French EMI, respectively – neither issued in the UK).
On this disc, Jean Guillou teams up with Edo DeWaart and the San Francisco Symphony for a lush performance of Camille Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3, popularly known as the Organ Symphony. This is a lush performance of the Organ Symphony with spot-on tempi, great orchestral balance, and unsurpassed balance between organ and orchestra. This symphony has one long melodic line after another, and DeWaart keeps a long view that prevents any sense of meandering. The organ is stunningly recorded. Brass blaze with glory. Strings are lush. Timpani are extremely well-defined. The clarity of the recording provides an excellent window into finer details. It is difficult to imagine how anything could have been improved upon. The disc is filled out with a strong performance of Widor's Allegro from his Symphony No. 6. This account of the Organ Symphony has everything going for it. There are no obvious weaknesses. If you have excellent subwoofers, they will get the workout of their life. Very Highly Recommended!
Unusually the liner note deserves a mention ahead of the music: the fine pianist Jeremy Denk, half of this regular duo, manages to encapsulate the elusiveness of French romantic music with such insight in a few sharp sentences, his words almost shape the way we listen to this superbly played disc. Saint-Saëns' wistful and emotional Sonata No 1 and Ravel's bluesy, ironic sonata have a whipped, airy quality. Joshua Bell plays with fire and finesse, with Denk a powerful ally. Franck's dark-light violin sonata, mysterious, ardent and far more than the sum of its parts when played as majestically as here, forms the centrepiece of this seriously beguiling disc.