Collectors in their 40s and older will remember Vox Boxes, highly affordable three-LP sets as useful for filling gaps in one's collection as they were for allowing one to explore unfamiliar repertoire. My youthful experiences with the range of Beethoven's piano music were courtesy of Alfred Brendel and his series of Vox Boxes. I still remember Walter Kraft's series of Bach's organ works – the Vox Boxes had Dürer woodcuts on the front!
Vox didn't neglect the Romantic repertoire either. In 1974, they recorded French pianist Marylène Dosse in what must have been about two Vox Boxes worth of Saint-Saëns' complete works for solo piano. Annie Petit joined her for the four-hand works, not an inconsequential part of this the composer's piano oeuvre. Many of the recordings were made in New York at Elite Recordings, under the excellent guidance of producer Joanna Nickrenz and engineer Marc Aubort. The remaining works were recorded in Stuttgart.
The music on these five CDs is not consistently "important," but Saint-Saëns' quality control was very rigorous, and there's nothing here that embarrasses the composer's reputation, as based on more famous works such as the "Organ" Symphony and Danse macabre. A fair portion of this music is within the grasp of moderately talented amateurs, and some of it is easier than that. All of it is interesting, regardless of its difficulty. On the other hand, there is much difficult writing here which will remind listeners what a fine pianist Saint-Saëns apparently was. In his solo piano works, he eschewed large forms. There are no piano sonatas for example, and even the longer opus numbers consist of smaller of pieces, or are sets of variations. (An example of the latter is the endlessly fascinating Beethoven Variations for two pianos, based on the Minuet from the third of Beethoven's Opus 31 sonatas.) Like Chopin and Schumann, Saint-Saëns wrote his share of nominally didactic Études – there are three sets of them here, and also a set of Fugues – and like the aforementioned composers, their musical interest raises them far above the level of mere finger exercises.
Probably the most famous work here, apart from the Carnival of the Animals (which is played with more pedantry than necessary), is the little Valse mignonne – a favorite of England's Queen Victoria and Alfred Cortot alike! Surprises include two pieces derived from the piano concerto movements, and Souvenir d'Ismailia, an exotic rhapsody on Arab themes. (The composer visited the northern part of Africa several times in his life.)
Dosse plays this music with a dry and almost brittle brilliance that is very French, if not always ideally suited to the wide breadth of Saint-Saëns piano output. What's nice about these lively performances is that they sound spontaneous; they are like ink that is still wet on the page. Occasionally, one feels that a second take, or at least a little more time in the studio, would have smoothed over some of the minor technical bumps. Still, given the scope of the project, Dosse's playing is admirable, and it is never less than affectionate. Petit is a very like-minded partner in the four-hand works. The engineering is clattery but serviceable. Vox's booklet contains a long and helpful note by Charles Suttoni, guiding the listener through each work. This set is well worth considering, particularly when it is so inexpensive.
Copyright © 2004, Raymond Tuttle