It wasn’t that long ago that Saint-Saëns was generally, and snootily, regarded as a second-division composer. That’s clearly a nonsense—in truth, the late-19th-century French composer could do it all: symphonies, operas, concertos, chamber music, all infused with melodic inspiration, an unmatched craftmanship and an irresistible Gallic charm. Maybe his detractors couldn’t compute a composer whose music oozed sophistication and geniality in equal measure. Saint-Saëns’ unique musical makeup, says pianist Lang Lang, comes from both the German and French school of composition—one rooted in strict counterpoint, the other freer and harmonically more experimental. “Structure-wise, Saint-Saëns is very solid,” he tells Apple Music Classical, “but most of the other French composers are not as symmetrical. I mean, their music has a structure, but they’re not so precise and balanced in their musical forms as Saint-Saëns.” Lang Lang loves, he says, the “substantial muscles and blood and emotion” that form the backbone of much of Saint-Saëns’ music—if French Impressionist music is the appetizer or dessert, then Saint-Saëns is much more of a main course, he muses. “I wanted to find the right time to do a French album—one which has it all.” And so, we begin with two works that perhaps best represent the composer through a blend of structural tautness, Romantic passion and irresistible, affable wit. The Carnival of the Animals and sunny Piano Concerto No. 2 are both enticingly showcased here by Lang Lang and a terrific lineup of musicians, all of whom rise to the composer’s challenges with ebullient energy and joyful abandon. Saint-Saëns originally wrote The Carnival of the Animals in 1886 as a gift to his students (and a welcome distraction from “serious” composing). Full of in-jokes and gentle gibes at fellow composers, Carnival was never intended to be published, but rather performed and enjoyed in private. Playful it may be, but, says Lang Lang, Carnival should be treated with respect. “I really like this piece—it’s masterful—but it’s often played very childishly,” he says. “What I love about this recording is that the Gewandhaus really face this piece with a very serious attitude, even though it has to be fun.” Lang Lang leads a spirited, high-octane but superbly crafted performance that includes appearances from his pianist wife Gina Alice—the first time they’ve appeared together on an album. They spar brilliantly and hilariously on “Pianists,” Saint-Saëns’ caricature of two hopeless learners, and are as one in the whirlwind of “Wild Asses” and the ethereal rippling of “Aquarium.” Andris Nelsons corrals his menagerie of fine musicians, including star turns from flute, cello, double bass, and xylophone, with great humor. Fresh from his zoological adventures, Lang Lang launches headlong into the Piano Concerto No. 2, with its opening cadenza that pays homage to Bach (and by the end of the concerto, as the adage goes, to Offenbach). This is Saint-Saëns in full virtuosic mode, yet with virtuosity always at the service of the music. “It’s one of the best Romantic concertos ever written,” says Lang Lang. “There’s a bit of Mendelssohn, a little bit of Liszt and then, in the beginning, also a bit of Bach. It’s almost like an organ concerto.” Like the composer himself, Lang Lang is possessed of such technical skill that difficulties are no barrier to musical fluency, evident in the gamboling second movement. “There are so many colorful places in this piece,” adds Lang Lang, “and it has this kind of French feeling, this beautiful, light touch.” The final, furious “Presto,” the perfect amalgam of everything that makes Saint-Saëns great, proves the perfect showcase for the warm yet alert sound of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons. “Andris is really someone who’s so genuine, and has such a beautiful passion,” says Lang Lang, “and he supports me with all his heart. He’s a really, really great musician.” The remaining 15 tracks are a rewarding adventure in French Romantic music, including Debussy’s Petite Suite for piano duet, again performed (here on two pianos) by Lang Lang and Alice, and no less than five pieces by female French composers. Valse lente by Germaine Tailleferre, for instance, the only female member of the group of French composers called “Les Six,” is a beautiful mix of Satie-esque calm and sultry modern jazz. For Lang Lang, Charlotte Sohy’s Romance sans paroles holds a place in his heart. “I really love that piece,” he says, “it’s like you are walking through the most beautiful Paris park.”

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