"I produce music the way an apple tree produces apples," quipped Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) on his own art. The many-gifted composer and pianist set a number of sophisticated piano roll inscriptions for the Welte studios in 1905, when the composer was seventy years old, now heard on the modern Steinway in stereo. (The Welte system used a "vorsetzer" 88-fingered gadget which rolled up to any piano and "played" it.) Noted for exceptionally quick tempos, Saint-Saens once played his favorite scherzo, Chopin’s C-sharp Minor, for Artur Rubinstein. "It was a picture of note-perfect clarity, but too fast." The several solo piano pieces are light, salon pieces of rather undistinguished character. In his performance of his own Victor Hugo-based tone-poem, Omphale’s Spinning Wheel, we hear the Bach influence, particularly from the C Major Prelude that sets out WTC I. The Op. 66 Mazurka becomes rhythmically smeared and becomes a toccata, so fast do the arpeggios and runs fly by. The finale from Samson et Dalila - the Dance of the Priestesses of Dagon - enjoys a plastic shape, a daintiness almost rivaling the Beecham performance with orchestra 50 years alter.
A slight ritard between the two hands produces a controlled rubato, and we can hear this in the C Major Rhapsodie d’Auvergne, coloristically adept but rather spare in the use of pedal effects. The light filigree of the middle section - rife with "African", zither, non-legato effects--moves with astonishing facility, the affect close to the Egyptian Concerto. Recall, that for Saint-Saens "Africa" meant Algiers. So the Op. 60 excerpt features swirls of color, internal agogics and dance-rhythms that move in sultry motion. A petite Gavotte in F bristles and chimes along, already indicative of the later composers Ibert and Poulenc. The Valse mignonne in E-flat plays as a stylish bagatelle, another etude brillante with music-box aspirations.
The second movement of the Beethoven G Major Sonata receives a decidedly ‘galant’ treatment and becomes a blend of gavotte and right-hand, ornamental etude. The left hand pulse remains steady, typical of the pedagogy that ruled Hummel and Chopin. The energy seems to evolve from Saint-Saens’ wrists and fingers, the pulse inevitable as Ahab’s pursuit of his destiny. The flurried syncopation at the da capo is quite deft, the top line the soul of etched clarity. The natural affection the French maintain for Schumann comes through in the recording of "Abschied" from the set of Forest-Scenes, its intricate counterpoint and jostling syncopes no obstacles for the redoubtable Saint-Saens. We may well wonder if Saint-Saens’ directness of approach in Chopin carries more truth of that style than any of our modern acolytes’ mannered methods. The Nocturne is neither prosaic nor self-indulged, but its internal velocity emanates from within. Without pedal, the notes cascade upon each other for a lyrically sober experience. The famed Etude in E moves like clockwork, unsentimentally brisk; the trio, attacca, moves with a blinding rush of notes, the accents sharp until a pregnant ritard and the da capo, almost Spartan in its resistance to change.