Geoffrey Burleson plays Saint-Saëns' "Fantaisie sur le Scherzo de Les Pêcheurs de perles'"
The very first release on Naxos new Grand Piano Label, this CD contains all three sets of ingenious and virtuosic piano etudes by the great French romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The works span textures and moods ranging from spellbinding intensity to ethereal delicacy. Some take Bach and Chopin as departure points, and a few even anticipate the impressionistic realms of Debussy and Ravel. The final of the three sets, Op. 135, is for the left hand alone, and is modeled on suites by the great French Baroque composers Couperin and Rameau. This release initiates a 5 volume set of Saint-Saëns complete piano works that Burleson is recording for the new label. Available from Naxos, Amazon, iTunes, HMV, Arkiv, Barnes & Noble, eMusic, and elsewhere.
Burleson's first recording on Naxos's new Grand Piano label exudes clarity and grace. These three sets of Saint-Saëns piano etudes abound in technical challenges, and Burleson is certainly up to meeting them. The Op. 52, No. 3 prelude remains crisp and delicate despite its breathless repetitions, and the sensitively articulated accompanying fugue employs intricate chromaticism that echoes Bach. Of the Op. 111 set, No. 5, Tierces majeures chromatiques, with its constant exploitation of chromatic major thirds in either hand, is performed with impressive control. Burleson also explores Saint-Saëns's rich stylistic variety, from the impressionistic Op. 111, No. 4 to the playful ragtime of Op. 111, No. 6. Concluding with the inventive, often poignant Op. 135 Études for the Left Hand Alone, this excellent disc showcases what promises to be an engaging collection of Saint-Saëns's complete piano works.
Sang Woo Kang, Clavier Companion
Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) composed three sets of Etudes: Op. 52 in 1877, Op. 111 in 1899, and Op. 135 in 1912. This is how Burleson has chosen to auspiciously begin his projected five volumes of his complete piano music. As the inaugural release on the new Grand Piano label, it bodes well for what should become a great label for piano music. Only a brilliant piano technician can perform these 18 knuckle-busters, and Burleson is such a pianist…his ability and stamina to get through these and make music out of them is nothing short of amazing. The first two sets of Etudes are as difficult as Chopin’s and Liszt’s. Often dealing with a single technical problem, they are inventive and effective. The last set is for the left hand alone and in a different musical world. Burleson has just the right panache to bring these off. Recorded sound and booklet notes (by Burleson) are absolutely first class.
-Steven J Haller, American Record Guide
Here we have a truly extraordinary disc. Saint-Saëns' etudes are among the most difficult and demanding piano music ever written. Geoffrey Burleson certainly has an ironclad technique, which is fortunate because the first and third etudes of the Op. 52 set (as with others in all three series) are so fiendishly difficult that only a master technician would have the temerity to perform them in public. As the series progresses, the music becomes more melodic, as in the Prelude and Fugue in A (No 5), but the first series ends with another staccato finger-buster. The last of the 3 sets of etudes, Op. 135, is for the left-hand alone. Burleson plays these rather lightly, with an occasional lilt at the end of phrases and touches of rubato, and he manages to make No. 4 (the Bourée) sound lightly dancing and lyrical. Burleson has the usual dazzling technique and exuberance that so many young pianists today possess.
Lynn René Bayley, Fanfare
This is definitely music for the relatively mature student with aspirations to the highest levels of nineteenth-century virtuosity. Most impressive is the appearance of prelude-fugue couplings, two in Opus 52 and one in Opus 111. Burleson does much to engage the listener. He has a keen ear for phrasing that goes beyond the demands of technical exercise. Most important, he appreciates the challenges of listening to counterpoint and attenuates his control of the individual voices in ways that elucidate the intricacies of Saint-Saëns' compositional (rather than merely technical) skill.
-Stephen Smoliar, Examiner.com.
Sample: Thème varié. Op. 97
Saint-Saëns was a piano virtuoso and a composer of bravura brilliance. His Six Fugues, Op 161 are masterly and complex character studies, devoid of academic leanings, whilst his famous Allegro appassionato, Op 70 possesses brilliance and lyrical depth. The Theme varie, Op 97 is witty and explosive, the Suite, Op 90 full of charm, and the Allegro, Op 29 possessed of dazzling breadth. This is the latest release in a 5 volume series of Saint-Saëns' complete piano works that Burleson is recording for the new Naxos Grand Piano label. Available from Naxos, Amazon, iTunes, HMV, Arkiv, Barnes & Noble, eMusic, and elsewhere.
Burleson brings a commanding technique and cultured musicality to these works. He takes care to point up Saint-Saëns's formal mastery and in this sense the two pieces transcribed from concert works are particularly impressive. He is also adept at polyphonic textures, and the fugues, some of which are far from easy, are poised and often charming. One of the challenges of Saint-Saëns's piano music, it seems to me, is its sheer stylistic diversity. Perhaps it is Burleson's wide-ranging experience with different kinds of music, his experience with jazz, a good deal of contemporary music, not to mention great chunks of the standard repertoire, which makes him such a persuasive advocate for Saint-Saëns.
-Patrick Rucker, International Record Review
The piano works of Saint-Saëns are some of the forgotten gems in the pianist's repertoire. Geoffrey Burleson does an admirable job handling all of the many inherent difficulties of this music--just a quick glance at the theme and variations is enough to scare most pianists. What feels right about this program, moreover, is that the pieces are arranged in a way that makes one feel that one is listening to a recital, rather than just a second installment of the complete piano works of this composer. The suite, while light in mood, contains some very fine moments. Burleson obviously relishes this little masterpiece. The real stars of the program are the Thème varié and the fugues. Though one can play them as simple academic etudes, whether studies in composition or instrumental technique, Burleson shows the Six Fugues, Op. 161 to be true musical masterpieces.
-Scott Noriega, Fanfare Magazine
Burleson has a keen ear for phrasing that goes beyond the demands of technical exercise. Most important, he appreciate the challenges of listening to counterpoint and attenuates his control of the individual voices that elucidate the intricacies of Saint-Saëns' compositional (rather than merely technical) skills. The reworking of the Op. 29 Concerto in E-Flat Major (the third) is definitely impressive. Saint-Saëns clearly put considerable thought into how the interplay of orchestra and soloist can be conveyed without the orchestra being present. Considering how little attention this concerto gets in the symphonic repertoire, this particular track has great value to the curious listener. I find the Op. 161 Fugues to be the most engaging selections. Once again Burleson is in peak form when it comes to sorting out the complex interrelationships of the contrapuntal voices. This is music that really does deserve more attention in concert and recital halls.
-Stephen Smoliar, Examiner.com
Sample: from Album, Op. 72: Toccata
Saint-Saëns’s first published works for piano were the vivid and characterful Six Bagatelles, Op 3. Album, Op 72 dates from his mid-career and teems with rich colours and textures—haunting and exciting alike. Elsewhere, in this third volume of the Complete Piano Music, we find the richly evocative tone poem Rhapsodie d’Auvergne, paraphrases, and some delicious encores.
"In the Op. 3 Bagatelles you hear the influence of Schumann, in writing as colourful as it is pianistically adroit. The Op. 72 Album offers music of a fuller, more advanced idiom, with the shadow of Liszt in his later dark-hued manner hanging over 'Carillon' and with an elegant 'Valse' to follow. The Rhapsodie d'Auvergne fizzes with energy after its folksong start and the ambitious 1867 Caprice has a notably witty finish. Yet arguably the most personal voice is found in Les cloches du soir and in the concluding Feuillet d'album. All of this music is played with verve and commitment by Burleson."
-Bryce Morrison, Gramophone
"On this volume, Saint-Saëns shows himself in every moment to exhibit the great craft of the composer and pianist who was admired by Liszt. Geoffrey Burleson overcomes the difficulties of formidably demanding scores, playing at the same time leggerio and con fuoco. To the great credit of this American pianist is his scintillatingly and never overly-dry staccato, a nuanced palette, and a variety of accents. The Album, Op. 72, alternates virtuosic bursts (Prélude), ample space and expressive atmosphere (Carillon), and a fearsome Toccata. A clear and vivid interpretation throughout. "
-Bertrand Boissard, Diapason (France)
Sample: Valse Canariote, Op. 88
Although he is best remembered for his orchestral and instrumental music, Saint-Saëns was also responsible for spearheading the revival of the French Baroque, especially the music of Lully and Rameau, as well as being perfectly placed to absorb the latest instrumental dance music. His five ‘character waltzes’ include the ethereal and ravishingly textured Valse mignonne, the stylistically forward-looking Valse nonchalante and the virtuosic Valse gaie, the composer’s final waltz for solo piano, while the three minor key Mazurkas are strongly characterised and filled with ingenious musical contrasts. Last but not least, the three ‘souvenirs’ are delightful evocations of particular corners of the world that inspired Saint-Saëns.
"Burleson has immersed himself in the entirety of Saint-Saëns' output and is a powerful advocate for this music. He plays with all the requisite technique and a style and flair that one would expect from music firmly entrenched in the romantic style. His booklet notes are enlightening, and the piano sound is wonderful. I am sure that I will also enjoy the future volumes in this series."
-James Harrington, American Record Guide
"Burleson does a wonderful job of honoring the 'dance roots' of these selections. One can actually dance to this music, and it is too bad that more imaginative choreographers have not been inspired by it. All too often, pianists who take on the dance forms set by Frédéric Chopin tend to push any sense of dance to the side to avoid it interfering with the display of virtuoso piano technique. Saint-Saëns’ piano music has its own share of technical challenges; but through Burleson’s approaches to execution, one comes away with a clear sense that Saint-Saëns took the titles he assigned to those pieces seriously. Burleson plays as if he believes that there is real substance to what he is playing; and the attentive listener is likely to agree with him."
-Stephen Smoliar, Examiner.com
"Overall, this is a superb disc played by a very talented pianist who is more than able to cope with the Saint-Saëns’ myriad technical details and colours. It will also, I hope, bring Saint-Saëns’ piano music to the wider audience it deserves. I will certainly play this CD frequently. The recorded sound is excellent and I very much look forward to Volume 5."
-Jonathan Welsh, MusicWeb International
Sample: Africa, Op. 89
The eight world premiere recordings included in this programme are played from a treasure trove of unpublished manuscripts obtained by Geoffrey Burleson from the Bibliothèque national de France, each of them filled with strong and imaginative ideas. Further virtuosic rarities by Saint-Saëns include a solo transcription of his exotic Africa for piano and orchestra, and fantasies on works by Beethoven, Gounod, Liszt, Bizet and others.
"Burleson has a treasure trove of unpublished manuscripts from the the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. This, his fifth volume of the French master's piano works, is certainly the most interesting from a musicological perspective. We are fortunate that he has all of the technical and musical abilities to bring these very difficult works off. There is a lot of flashy writing here, along the beautiful opera melodies cloaked in filigree all over the keyboard that anyone acquainted with some of Liszt's works in this genre will expect. The extensive and informative booklet essay is important with so many unpublished works in first recordings. This is an absolute must for anyone interested in Saint-Saëns or romantic virtuosic piano music. The piano sound is exceptionally good."
-James Harrington, American Record Guide
"The shape of the Saint-Saëns achieved sublime results. The mysticism of the Thaïs paraphrase came like vapor out of the famous “Méditation,” leading to Gounod’s reaction to the destruction of the Franco-Prussian War, via Saint-Saëns's Paraphrase sur 'Gallia' de Gounod. The original, haunting choral work was transformed by Saint-Saëns into a somber, focused lamentation. Burleson had the right measure of this, channeling the emotions with a focus that gave them a richness and cutting edge."
-George Grella, New York Classical Review
"I first read of the existence of the transcription of the ‘Chorus of the Dervishes’ from Beethoven’s ‘Ruins of Athens’ in the cover notes for one of Leslie Howard’s Hyperion Liszt CDs but I’d never heard it until this recording. This is a short and ferociously difficult little piece which works tremendously well for piano - and the recording and playing are first rate. The creepy, supernatural elements in it come across especially well here. Next is a fantasy on a work by Gounod who apparently wrote twelve operas in total, including the famous Faust for which he is primarily remembered. Here, Saint-Saëns constructs a fantasy on his motet ‘Gallia’ which dates from the same year as the work was premiered. I’d never heard of it before but the themes which Saint-Saëns uses are very interesting and create a rather splendid virtuoso showpiece full of interesting key changes and some tricky passagework for the pianist. The central part about five minutes in is more restrained and provides the pianist with a chance to play some really beautiful melodies which he does perfectly. There are again some very Lisztian touches, especially towards the end as the piece grows to a victorious conclusion. I do really like it, as it is full of interest for the listener and shines a light into a little-known work by Gounod which appears to have been recorded only once. Track 9 is based on the ‘Scherzo’ from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers and dates from later on in Saint-Saëns life, around the time of the famous Organ Symphony. This is again Lisztian in tone at the beginning and rattles along at a tremendous pace with lots of repeated notes for the pianist which are dispatched here with considerable aplomb. The central variation part is more restrained at least in terms of volume and contains playing which is both delicate and brilliant - it really sounds here as if Mr. Burleson is having a great time playing this piece. It is a marvellous work and really deserves to be heard more often; I can’t believe something this fun has lain undiscovered in a vault for over a century. All the difficulties are superbly dispatched here and the work is as splendid as the pianism. Last is Saint-Saëns’s solo piano version of his completely barmy ‘Africa’ Fantasy, Op.89, much more familiar in the piano and orchestral version. I’ve always liked this work for its totally over-the-top virtuosity and joie de vivre. Here, all the orchestral details are expertly integrated into a solo piano work of extreme difficulty which Mr. Burleson negotiates skilfully. There is no let-up in the virtuosity in the eleven and a half minutes with repeated notes, runs, tremelandos, rapid leaps and scalic passages all creating a brilliant fantasy. The piece starts seriously in G minor and gradually changes to G major by means of some interesting key changes and includes references to the Tunisian National Anthem and other suitably geographically located tunes. It is marvellous and excellently played – I like this just as much as the piano and orchestral version. This is a marvellous recording, with interesting and informative cover notes by Mr. Burleson himself and excellent recording quality. Once again, the pianist Geoffrey Burleson has made a super job of these obscure and interesting works."
-Jonathan Welsh, MusicWeb International