Saturday, October 19, 2019

Geoffrey Burleson’s Saint-Saëns Project: Vol. 5

courtesy of Naxos of America

The last time I wrote about pianist Geoffrey Burleson’s project to record the complete piano music of Camille Saint-Saëns on the Grand Piano label was in February of 2016, when my articles were still appearing on That piece discussed Burleson’s fourth volume, given the title Dances and Souvenirs, which seemed to suggest a move from the concert hall to the salon. At that time I had no idea how many CDs would be required to complete the project, suggesting that, if the recordings were to include transcriptions, then Burleson still had a fair amount of work cut out for him.

A little over a month ago, the fifth volume in the series surfaced; and, sure enough, its title is Rarities and Transcriptions. If that does not reinforce my suspicions that much remains to be recorded, consider the first sentence on the back cover of the album:
The eight world premiere recordings included in this programme are played from a treasure trove of unpublished manuscripts obtained by Geoffrey Burleson from the Bibliothèque national de France, each of them filled with strong and imaginative ideas.
Since the total number of compositions on this album is eleven, that “treasure trove” accounts for the lion’s share of the offerings.

The three remaining tracks all involve reworking previous sources. One of those is one of Saint-Saëns’s own compositions, a solo piano version of his Opus 89 “Africa” fantasy, originally composed for piano and orchestra. The other sources come from Ludwig van Beethoven (the “Dervish Chorus” from the incidental music for August von Kotzebue’s play The Ruins of Athens) and Jules Massenet (the final scene of the opera Thaïs, which includes a reflection on the famous “Méditation” entr’acte music). Sources from that “treasure trove” include (in order of appearance on Burleson’s new recording) Giacomo Meyerbeer, Richard Wagner (whom Meyerbeer championed), Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet, and Franz Liszt.

In this context I should probably confess (or remind) that one of my favorite recitals of all time was a concert given by Earl Wild at Carnegie Hall entitled The Art of the Transcription; and I am happy to note that the “live” recording of that performance is still available. However, what made that album so interesting was the diversity among all the composers involved in creating the transcriptions. Almost all of Wild’s selections were familiar, but the differences among the transcription techniques were significant and thoroughly absorbing.

There is where the rub lies on this new Rarities and Transcriptions recording. Those who are at least minimally aware of Saint-Saëns’ approaches to keyboard technique, even if they have not traversed all of the previous volumes in Burleson’s project, will quickly become accustomed to the prevailing style and rhetoric on this new recording. Indeed, by the time the attentive listener reaches the penultimate track, an “improvisation” drawing upon both Beethoven and Liszt for source material, (s)he is likely to have had her/his fill of richly elaborate rabbits popping out of rather shopworn hats.

If Burleson’s recording project amounts to a journey through everything that Saint-Saëns’ wrote for solo piano, I am afraid I have now reached the point at which I must ask (hopefully, without whining) “Are we there, yet?”

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