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 Interview, Bertrand Chamayou on Saint-Saëns

Bertrand ChamayouThis week sees the release of two extremely fine recordings of Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos from French pianists, both of which feature the Second Concerto which was composed at top-speed for Anton Rubinstein: Louis Lortie presents the work alongside the First and Fourth Concertos with the BBC Philharmonic and Edward Gardner on Chandos, whilst Bertrand Chamayou couples it with the popular ‘Egyptian’ Concerto and a smattering of the composer’s far less well-known works for solo piano.

I spoke to Bertrand whilst he was in London this summer (just an hour, in fact, before he made his BBC Proms debut in Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto!) about how much Saint-Saëns’s approach to the piano concerto evolved over the course of his life, why his solo piano music has remained relatively under the radar, and how much influence his writing had on Ravel…

You recorded the Liszt Transcendental Studies a few years ago – in terms of their technical demands, how do Saint-Saëns’s Études compare with those of Liszt, or even Chopin?

I play only three of the eighteen Études which he composed on the album, and I think they are the more interesting ones! They do have a lot in common with Liszt’s technique, but in a more Classical way - the register in general is slightly less extended. Liszt is a little bit wilder: you spend a lot of time at the upper and lower extremes of the keyboard, almost imitating a full orchestra, but the Saint-Saëns Études are more pianistic. There’s a certain nobility to them, but they’re also a little like salon music in that they’re slightly more reduced into the projection of the piano. But for me what makes Saint-Saëns really interesting is the combination of Classical, almost Mozartian writing and Liszt’s shining, sparkling touch, though without his wildness; it’s really more about brilliance. Both composers pose a lot of technical challenges, like double notes (where you play scales with two voices at the same time in the same hand). That’s really quite difficult, but as there are so many of them in Saint-Saëns’s works (in the Second Concerto, for instance) that we can be sure that he had that technique really mastered!

The solo piano music is a relatively underexplored area of Saint-Saëns’s output – why do you think that is, and where do they sit in relation to the concertos?

One of my great hobbies is to buy scores for sight-reading (and also just for pleasure), and in the process I discovered that Saint-Saëns wrote eight hours of piano music but no major works – there’s no big sonata, for instance, so in the grand scheme of things one can’t really say it’s a key aspect of his output. (His major works for the piano are really the concertos). The solo works are all small-scale pieces, and to be honest some of them are a little bit weak, but there are some jewels: I’d say there is at least one hour fifty minutes of really great stuff. In the end I chose only thirty minutes for the album, because there are also the two concertos (2 and 5) - but the ones we included really deserve to sit alongside the concertos, because they are so striking and charming. The concertos are better known partly because they’re just bigger pieces, and also because of the stories surrounding them: for example, the Second Concerto was written when Rubinstein came to a concert in Paris and asked Saint-Saëns to write him something, and he composed the whole thing in two weeks! But I wanted the last part of the album to show a different face of Saint-Saëns’s music: we often think of him perhaps as a ‘perfect’ composer who is a little bit too civilised in a way, too clean… I think that's certainly true in comparison with Liszt, but there’s a little window you can open onto this very enchanting world: there are slight perfumes of the orient here and there, then out of nowhere you’ll get a quintessentially French chord that’s quite unexpected!

The two concertos were written three decades apart – do they occupy very different sound-worlds?

Oh, you can certainly see that they’re the work of the same composer: Saint-Saëns had a very long life (he died in the 1920s), but he was definitely a Romantic rather than a progressive. He was viewed as quite a ‘new’ composer in his youth, but then he didn’t really care to move! But whilst you can detect the same hand behind the score, the subject-matter of each score is totally different, partly because travel was such an integral part of Saint-Saëns’s life – he went all over the place, to the United States and South America, but the main part of his life was spent in Paris and the Mediterranean, especially the triangle of North Africa. I say ‘triangle’ because we’re really talking about North Africa from West to East, taking in Morocco and the Canaries (there is a piece which I play on this album which is named The Bells of Las Palmas) and Egypt as well. His Fifth Concerto used to be known as ‘The Egyptian’: it’s not Saint-Saëns’s own title, but the theory is that one of the themes in the middle of the slow movement is actually a song which he heard a woman singing on the Nile while he was sailing one day. In a sense, though, he’s conjuring up a dream of travel rather than travel itself: like a lot of French music of that time (and also the poetry, for example Baudelaire) it depicts not the real Orient but an imagined, composite vision of the Orient. As well as that Egyptian element, there are moments that sound a little bit Chinese, and it’s a very strange piece in a way because it’s not typically Romantic – in fact I'd go as far as to say that it’s totally unique in the piano literature.

That approach to ‘exoticism’ puts me a little in mind of Ravel’s Shéhérazade…You recorded his complete solo piano works in 2016: how much influence do you think Saint-Saëns had upon Ravel?

A lot, because Ravel was an ardent fan of Saint-Saëns. It’s important, I think, to notice how many people really respected and loved Saint-Saëns – he’s not a minor composer, not at all. Ravel said throughout his life that Saint-Saëns was one of his most important influences: in fact, he said that he was studying all of the piano concertos by Saint-Saëns when he was working on his own Piano Concerto in G. He was also immersed in Mozart at the same time, and he forges a link between the two, but in a way that is very structured. It’s nothing like Debussy, which is all about new shapes and new harmonies, something totally removed from what came before – Ravel is still linked with that Classical tradition. Saint-Saëns, too, was really attached to the science of composition: they had this in common, and so it makes perfect sense for me to release a Saint-Saëns album after having done so much Liszt and Ravel!

Bertrand Chamayou (piano), Orchestre National de France, Emmanuel Krivine

Bertrand Chamayou's Saint-Saëns album is released on Erato on 14th September.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Bertrand Chamayou (piano)

'Revelatory performances of breathtaking beauty and incomparable power. Most striking, perhaps, is their unforced naturalness....No one who loves French music or exquisite piano-playing will want to miss this.' (Gramophone)

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC