Time was when it was just the Bach-to-Offenbach of Saint-Säens's Piano Concertos, the G-minor Second, which people knew. Who cared that, post-war, the Record Guide rubbished its Finale as “stupid and perfunctory”. Everyone adored it, every season the great pianists paid tribute. Jeanne-Marie Darré – who studied with the composer, played all five Concertos in a single concert in 1926, and recorded the cycle in Paris in 1955-57 – set my early benchmark. Elegant, lyrical, powerful, high Gallic class. I wore out those LPs. Later, Ciccolini had other revelations to offer. Getting on with the notes, tripping along prettily, others since, musicality and sonics notwithstanding, have left me cooler. Saint-Säens isn't just about soufflés and parasols, there's alpine boar and rough wine for the seeking too.
Between them Louis Lortie and Edward Gardner have what it takes. Rhythmically sprung, the First Concerto (1858) is a triumph, steering an unfettered course between fantasy, energy and civilised debate – part Symphony, part Tone-poem, part Concerto. The introductory horn calls, open and muted in alternation, come straight out of the opera house; a forest scene I don't think I've ever heard better played or more atmospherically recorded. It's spine-tingling.
Tossed off in seventeen days, the Second (1868), as Roger Nichols reminds in his booklet note, is “rich in memorable music”. From grand Baroque opening, through gossamer Scherzo, to tarantella whirlwinds with a touch of the Orient. A few performances stick in the mind. The Russian Nikolai Petrov (Khachaturian's favourite) depending on it for his life, devouring Bizet's solo transcription with a thunder that was confrontational – not a French view but terrifyingly unforgettable. And then sixteen-year-old Lara Melda (Ömeroğlu) winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year with Vasily Petrenko in 2010 – the incandescent, visceral surge of youth, tightly wound, rocketing skywards. Lortie, in the Darré tradition, is an aristocratic master of the page, quietly delicate, placing his bass notes with a palette of touch and timbre from seductive sensuality to granite opulence. Gardner, long a conductor drawn to architecture and detail, takes far from a routine view, his supportive presence ensuring a bold canvas. Hair-pinning throughout is alacritous, while in the second movement hard-stick timpani lend an unexpectedly farandole-like colour to the action. Come the end, orchestra in full cry, piano triplets cascading the octaves, pulse and momentum inexorable, fortissimo, you can only applaud.
The unconventionally organised Fourth Concerto (Théâtre du Châtelet, 31 October 1875, contemporary with the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor premiered in Boston six days earlier) presents the pianist with different challenges. “It is vital ... 'to play the solo part like a rôle',” Cortot advised (he'd discussed with Saint-Säens and owned the manuscript), “to take inspiration from the atmosphere of each movement, whether dramatic, passionate, or dreamlike.” Lortie, superbly equipped, doesn't shy away. The Classical paragraphs are grounded in a Beethoven/Franck way; the intimate Baroque reflections confide; the limpid episodes glisten like pearls around a Parisian throat; the pages of theatre, rhetoric and climax glow with an inner light, the fundamentals and harmonics of the instrument released without a hint of force or crudity. The closing C-major chorale, one of this work's danger points, its litmus test, comes off brilliantly, the 3/4 beat swinging with ‘Eroica’-like majesty. Tempo-wise, Lortie and Gardner are spot on: the score says crotchet=184, they give us a stable dotted-minim=61. It gels perfectly, comparable with Rogé but with increased gravitas. Closest historically (if marginally slower) are Darré, then Casadesus (the epic 1961 Bernstein recording) – Lortie's models, one senses. Unwisely slow, Ciccolini (40-44) and Tacchino (51-56) fall short.
Passionately delivered, with a personality all of its own, outstandingly produced and engineered, this is a release to relish. Concertos 3 and 5 eagerly awaited.