Classic CD: Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky: Grand Sonata & The Seasons

By William Dart

Saint-Saens, Cello Concertos etc (Chandos, both through Ode Records).
Saint-Saens, Cello Concertos etc (Chandos, both through Ode Records).
Tchaikovsky, Grand Sonata & The Seasons (BIS).
Tchaikovsky, Grand Sonata & The Seasons (BIS).

Playing Gershwin with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in 2012, Freddy Kempf was a sleek cheetah on the keys, caressing moody chromaticisms into sinuous life.

The English pianist almost achieves the same for Tchaikovsky's ambitiously-titled Grand Sonata on his latest CD, finding capriciousness and even coquetry where brawnier sensibilities are content with the rough-hewn.

The seams show in the wandering Andante of the sonata's second movement, but Kempf makes an idyllic ballet of it; the following Scherzo could, with brilliant orchestration, slip into the Russian's Pathetique Symphony.

Tchaikovsky's The Seasons, unlike Vivaldi's four concertos of the same name, outlines the year, month by month, in two characterful pieces.

The composer's inspiration sometimes flags here, but the simpatico Kempf can even make a four-square February Carnival seem less so.

With dancing and sleigh-riding comes enchantment, be it in December's cajoling waltz or November's exhilarating Troika.

Best of all are June's Barcarolle and October's Autumn Song in which Kempf effortlessly unlocks a yearning lyricism that looks forward to Rachmaninov.

That underrated Canadian pianist Louis Lortie can be heard on a fine Chandos CD of Saint-Saens, with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Neeme Jarvi.

The French composer once likened his compositional fluency to an apple tree producing fruit; if so, then this selection, which includes the superb Truls Mork in Saint-Saens' two cello concertos, is definitely export quality.

There are all the frissons of the salon in the "Wedding-Cake" Caprice-Waltz, with Lortie gliding and swooping around the Bergen strings, as well as the nostalgic charm of faded Algerian postcards in the Africa fantasie for piano and orchestra.

One never tires of the delicious and sophisticated wit of The Carnival of the Animals. Delivered here without the distraction of Ogden Nash verses, it's musical humour that carries the day, with Lortie and fellow-pianist Helene Mercier offering a menagerie that stretches from languidly leaping kangaroos to stumbling young pianists.

For some, Truls Mork's graceful swan will be the highlight; I was smitten by the ethereal charm of Alasdair Malloy's glass harmonica floating with the fish in Saint-Saens' aquarium.

Saint-Saens, Cello Concertos etc (Chandos, both through Ode Records)

Tchaikovsky, Grand Sonata & The Seasons (BIS)

Verdict: Stylish performances add a special zest to familiar 19th century masters

- Weekend magazine

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