This gorgeous set is dedicated to piano concertante works from the pens of French composers – infinitely varied compositions that nevertheless each bear the unmistakeable flavour of their native idiom. The French piano concerto was a late arrival on the European stage, and even then many French composers would opt to combine piano and orchestra outside the confines of strict concerto form. This 12-CD set homes in on the genre’s heyday – the century or so spanning Saint-Saëns’s pioneering First Piano Concerto (1858) to Françaix’s nostalgic Concerto for 2 Pianos (1965) – along with two precursors: a two-movement Concerto in F (1792) by the ‘French Mozart’ Boieldieu and the early Concerti da camera Op.10 (1832–38) by the maverick genius Alkan.
The set begins with the five piano concertos that traverse Saint-Saëns’s career, along with concertante pieces he composed in the 1880s during a 20-year hiatus between his Fourth (1875) and Fifth (1896). The ’80s were fertile for Saint-Saëns’s contemporary Franck, as well, who returned to the piano after decades focusing on the organ and on choral music to create such piano concertante masterworks as Les Djinns and the Variations symphoniques.
The latter work was an influence on Claude Debussy’s Fantaisie, in terms of the roles assigned to the orchestra and solo piano and the work’s structure, and like Franck before him, Debussy would disown this youthful work to move in a new direction – surprising given the warm reception enjoyed today by the early works of both composers.
The influence of Saint-Saëns and Franck would extend to several of Debussy’s contemporaries, as well. Some would rebel against concerto form – Gabriel Fauré with his episodic Ballade Op.19, Cécile Chaminade with her single-movement Concertstück Op.40 and Vincent D’Indy with his three-movement Symphony on a French Mountain Air –
while others would embrace it – the Concerto in C minor Op.12 of Gabriel Pierné emulating Saint-Saëns’s Second yet foreshadowing Rachmaninov, and the epic Concerto in F minor by Édouard Lalo harking back to Liszt.
Jules Massenet’s Concerto in E flat, begun in his early twenties, but only finished at the turn of the century after his many successful operas, arrived too late for the shifting tastes of the time, which had turned their back on romantic virtuosity in favour of the impressionistic and neo-classical. The group known as ‘Les Six’ (The Six) represented the next generation of French composers exploring these new directions in the wake of the First World War. Three of their number figure on this set: Francis Poulenc and the charm and wit of his Concertos for one and for two Pianos, Germaine Tailleferre and the impressionistic orientalism of her Ballade, and the prolific Darius Milhaud who contributes no less than five piano concertos and four other concertante pieces.
Their younger colleague Jean Françaix was among the many great names to have studied with seminal French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. She is represented here by her forward-looking 1912 Fantaisie, while her student Françaix, like Poulenc, offers Concertos for one (1936) and for two (1965) pianos, the former dedicated to his teacher and the latter looking back to Poulenc. Albert Roussel and Reynaldo Hahn, though older than the members of ‘Les Six’, would only come to write piano concertos in their 50s, well into the inter-war period. Hahn’s concerto is featured here in a very special remastered historic recording from 1937, with the composer at the podium and the renowned Brazilian pianist Magda Tagliaferro as soloist.
Maurice Ravel likewise came late to the piano concerto, but then wrote two simultaneously, one for piano two hands and one for the left hand alone, on commissions from Serge Koussevitzky and Paul Wittgenstein, respectively. Both were given their premieres within a few weeks of each other in 1932.
As a worthy successor to the highly successful set of Russian Piano Concertos (BC95520) Brilliant Classics is happy to issue this set of French Piano Concertos on 12 CD’s.
Beginning with the (Early) Romantic concertos by Boieldieu and Alkan, and ending with concertos by Françaix and Milhaud they represent everything which is quintessentially French: a lightness of touch, charming, witty, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, colourful and bubbling with brilliant virtuosity.
Played by excellent pianists such as Magda Tagliaferro, Romain Descharmes, Gabriel Tacchino, Francois-Joël Thiollier, Michael Korstick, Florian Uhlig and Klára Würtz.
The booklet contains a newly written essay by David Moncur.