Among the virtuosity warhorses in the piano repertory, the five concertos by Camille Saint-Saens have established an appealing reputation. The audiences worldwide are enchanted to attend performances by great virtuosos in utterly melodious and harmonic works with dazzling keyboard pyrotechnics and musical ideas of the most refined quality. Yet, a very few of the professional pianists dare to approach this pianistic output by one of the most prolific and multifaceted artists of the European culture (composer, playwright, philosopher, astronomer, archaeologist, poet etc). To find the proper touch, to balance the wild virtuosity with the subtle musical concept, to get the deepest level of significance in these works – are all difficult tasks that require a high level of artistry (not only in pianistic terms).
In a world full of couplings of Schumann and Grieg's Piano Concertos in A minor, this disc offers three distinct advantages. First and most obviously, it offers an additional work, Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto in G minor, which brings the disc's total playing time up 78 minutes. Second, it offers up a soloist who's also the conductor, the multitalented Howard Shelley who directs England's Orchestra of Opera North from the keyboard.
A wide orchestral palette and stirring reserves of drama are used to evoke the youthful audacity and death of Phaéton, the ultimate triumph of virtue over pleasure in La Jeunesse d’Hercule (‘The Youth of Hercules’), and Hercules’ punishment, spinning wool while dressed as a woman, for the ‘inadvertent murder’ of one of his guests, in Le Rouet d’Omphale (‘The Spinning Wheel of Omphale’). The ever-popular Danse macabre is a spooky depiction of Death playing a dance on his fiddle on a tomb in a graveyard surrounded by skeletal dancers. Conductor Jun Märkl specialises in twentieth-century French music for Naxos and has earned international plaudits for his multi-volume Debussy series as well as for his Ravel and Messiaen discs.