CD Review: Saint-Saëns piano album an excuse to contrast brilliance with enduring appeal

Geoffrey Burleson plays Saint-Saëns

American pianist Geoffrey Burleson has just released the second in a planned series of four albums of the piano music of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) for the Grand Piano label. The second volume includes references to much earlier forms, including a suite, a theme with variations and the Six Fugues, Op. 161., from the year before he died.

The label itself, which is only two months old, “features recordings of interesting rare works that might otherwise have remained unknown and unrecorded.”

I was really looking forward to this, only to be disappointed throughout by a lack of much compelling material in the music.

Yes, the Fugues are masterfully drawn, but even the most adventurous harmonic and contrapuntal sections lack movement. The fluffier pieces are all about brilliance, something that Burleson tosses off with ease. Bravo for technique, but there is little in the music itself for someone looking for more than fireworks.

Burleson’s interpretations, although technically adept, are a bit brittle, as is the recorded sound.

Later on the same day as I first put the CD into the player, I was sitting next to one of my young students as she was sight-reading her way through the opening movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It’s such an over-played work, but there’s a reason why.

I couldn’t help thinking of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels, where sounds of that piece, badly played, waft out from an open window. I also could help analyzing the music as my student struggled through it.

It’s a captivating succession of major-minor juxtapositions, creating an underlying harmonic tension that grabs the full attention of anyone within earshot. The brain may not know exactly why, but the ever-shifting balance between light and shade is engrossing.

After my student had worked her way through, I sat down to play, narrating the chord progressions as I went. The girl, a serious teen, beamed and said “wow” a couple of times.

All this from a few articulated chords and a one-note melody that doesn’t really want to go anywhere.

So this is why the opening movement of the Moonlight Sonata is overplayed. It made me sad that all of the hard labours of Saint-Saëns (who had the additional misfortune of outliving his times) and Burleson’s hours and hours of preparation yielded so little, effectively condemning this music to darkness eternal.

Burleson is an interesting, multi-faceted pianist who blurs the boundaries between the classical canon, jazz and new music as much as he possibly can. But his enthusiasm is not of much use here.

If you want to find out more about this album, including audio samples, click here.

Here is Burleson playing one of Saint-Saëns’ Etudes, which he recorded for Vol. 1 (the clip is from a recital at New York City’s Hunter College, where Burleson teaches), followed by a much more elegant recording than Burleson’s of the Six Fugues by French pianist Bernard Ringeissen, who turned 78 this past week:

John Terauds


One thought on “CD Review: Saint-Saëns piano album an excuse to contrast brilliance with enduring appeal

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