The Naxos Interview: Laurence Vittes talks with Romain Descharmes
April 18, 2017
In his new recording of the five Saint-Saëns piano concertos, Romain Descharmes, with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot, lays out the sheer attractiveness of the brilliant writing and physical vitality in a series of exciting performances that chart an important evolutionary phase in the French piano concerto.
Since his début with the Orchestre de Paris in May 2012, Romain Descharmes has established himself as one of the foremost French pianists of his generation. Winner of the Dublin Competition, he has collaborated with the Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre Symphonique de Québec, Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre National de Lyon, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, and Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, among others.
Romain Descharmes also dedicates some of his time to teaching and is a professor at the Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional in Paris. I spoke to Romain in Paris about the Saint-Saëns piano concertos.
LV What was your first response to the Saint-Saëns project?
Romain Descharmes When this amazing project was offered to me, I was excited by the idea of a complete set of the concertos, not just the famous ones. I think that such sets are the best way to really dive into the composer’s universe. And when I was able to obtain all the scores, I realized how huge was the task I had set myself: so many wide-ranging notes and technical difficulties of all kinds.
LV How did you get the music ready?
Romain Descharmes I don’t remember exactly when I began to work on the scores as a project. Almost a year before the first session, we reached an agreement with Naxos and planned the schedule. I began what would be more than eight months of work leading up to the recordings. It was a long eight months during which I had to assimilate all this music, and resolve the technical and musical problems. We had two recording sessions in June and August. I was very well prepared for the first session, and even more intensely so for the second. Ultimately, I relied on my habits and instincts to find the pure music beyond the technique. And, of course, I relied on the beautifully-written scores themselves, with which you can express an infinity of colors and emotions. It was a lot of work, always alone at the piano.
LV Now that you have recorded all five, how do you rate them?
Romain Descharmes For me, the summit of the cycle is the Fifth: a first movement more intimate and introspective than virtuoso; a second wonderfully varied and inventive; and a very molto Molto Allegro finale with which to dazzle the public. The Second is very difficult physically: it’s long, intense, and there’s not one bar to rest. It’s like a battle between the piano and the orchestra which explodes in the finale, again designed to have maximum impact on the audience. It is 100 percent an entertainment piece.
LV How did Saint-Saëns’ writing change over the five decades?
Romain Descharmes You can hear the evolution of Saint-Saëns’ writing over the span of the 40 years he wrote them, from 1858 to 1896. The First was a classical virtuoso piece, the Fifth more substantial, with an incredibly imaginative use of color. Even the smallest moments are charged with a very special creativity.
LV How did the recording sessions go?
Romain Descharmes As we were working on a tight, five-day schedule, we had to use our time efficiently (especially as we had only a short rehearsal for each movement before recording). Happily, I had full confidence in the musical forces, and equally so in Sean Lewis, our engineer, who seemed to be able to listen to each instrument individually and to tell us precisely which passages needed redoing. During the breaks, and after the sessions were over, we listened to the takes and chose the best ones, then edited in a few last small patches.
LV What was it like recording Saint-Saëns with a Swedish orchestra?
Romain Descharmes It was very easy working with the Malmö orchestra: the planning was precise and detailed almost down to the minute, which allowed us to use our recording time very efficiently with minimum loss of time. I had already performed the Second Concerto with them, and they knew the Fifth, so the other three were a discovery for them as well. It was a process that involved a lot of discussion among myself, Marc, and the musicians about tempo, phrasing, articulation, and of the characteristically French fine manners and elegance that would best advocate for this almost forgotten music.
LV Which edition did you use?
Romain Descharmes We used the Durand edition, which has pretty much become the standard for all French music. I had the piano parts to all five concertos–but only with a reduction of the orchestra for an accompanying second piano. Otherwise I would have had too many pages to turn. While playing the solo part, I also had the orchestra part on the page in the same line of my sight so I knew when and what the different instruments in the orchestra were playing from measure to measure.
LV What was your final takeaway?
Romain Descharmes Once the gigantic technical difficulties were under our control, I took great pleasure in recording music which reflects so perfectly the profoundly French spirit, color, and expressive eloquence of Saint-Saëns’ music.
Romain Descharmes Biography & Discography
Malmö Symphony Orchestra Background & Discography
Marc Soustrot Biography & Discography
Camille Saint-Saëns Biography & Discography