Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 (“The Egyptian”)
Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s first recording of piano concertos by CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS was to have been released in the last week of August to coincide with his performance of the Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103, the centerpiece of an all-French program at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the young charismatic French conductor Stéphane Denéve. It didn’t work out quite that way–the CD release was delayed– but that didn’t take a bit away from the dazzling display of color, musicianship and virtuosity that marked the evening’s celebration of the FRENCH MASTERS that began with the overture to Hector Berlioz’ unfinished (and later abandoned) opera, “Les Francs-juges” (The Judges of the Secret Court), the earliest of his compositions to have become a part of today’s orchestral repertoire.
With his by now well-known sartorial elegance, Thibaudet then appeared on stage and soon Saint-Saëns’ fifth piano concerto dominated the stage. His reading of the composer’s last piano concerto, written at age 60 and some 20 years after the fourth, was as expected–impeccable!
He played with clarity and passion, style and technique, dynamism and charisma, and the sparkling brilliance that this most evocative of the five concertos calls for. There was no mistaking the exotic Orientalism of the second movement with its Arabian and Egyptian themes. The concerto was nicknamed (though by whom is not known) “The Egyptian” for a reason: Saint-Saëns, who was an inveterate traveller (and a multi-talented man whose interests took him beyond writing music into writing essays in philosophy and science) composed it during his visit to the Egyptian city of Luxor. Thibaudet, himself a well-traveled man, played the concerto perhaps just the way the composer who was the most admired pianist of his time would have. Indeed, Saint-Saëns premiered and introduced all his piano concertos himself, always to great acclaim, even if his music was sometimes treated with condescension and the composer at times disparaged as the “French Mendelssohn.” Hector Berlioz however admired both the genius and pianistic skills of the composer who was in his words also “a shattering master pianist.” It is a description that many will agree befits Thibaudet as well, and his performance at this concert is one of already innumerable occasions that prove the point.
Why he likes the “Egyptian”
Contributing in a major way to the perfection of this evening’s performance, unusual for an outdoor concert, was the unspoken but obvious bond between soloist and young conductor (at whose wedding Thibaudet was best man), and between soloist and orchestra with whom Thibaudet has enjoyed years of artistic collaboration since the turn of the millennium.
The evening’s second half was as masterful and engaging as the first. Stéphane Denéve and the LA Phil enchanted with their rendition of Debussy’s La Mer and Suite No. 2 from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé.“
If you missed this magical Hollywood Bowl performance, there’s the CD to listen to at your command. And it is just as dazzling as the Bowl’s. Plus you get to enjoy Saint-Saëns’ more popular Piano Concerto No. 2 as well, featuring the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande directed by long-time Thibaudet collaborator, Charles Dutoit. It will leave you hoping he records the rest of Saint-Saëns’ piano concertos. This much is crystal clear: Both in performance and on record, Jean-Yves never fails to prove himself to be a true master of the French Masters.
LISTEN TO SOME CLIPS:
from PIANO CONCERTO No. 2 in G minor Op.32: