About this Recording
8.550334 - SAINT-SAENS: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 4
English 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 - 1921)

Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Opus 22
Piano Concerto No.4 in C minor, Opus 44

Camille Saint-Saëns enjoyed a long and prolific career as a composer. As a younger man he was a leading supporter of newer tendencies in French music: in old age his opposition to Debussy, whom he outlived by three years, earned him a deserved reputation as an enemy of what was seen as progress. His later critics, who could hardly dispute his technical command, wrote of bad music well written, an unmerited jibe at a composer who had achieved much in a variety of fields. An admirer of Mozart, he was known to some as the French Mendelssohn, and his music always possessed the clarity of form and texture common to these earlier composers, elements that influenced his friend and pupil Gabriel Fauré and, vicariously, Fauré's own pupil Maurice Ravel. Gounod referred to him as the French Beethoven, and these flattering comparisons are evidence of the esteem in which he was held.

In his personal life Saint-Saëns was not always fortunate. As a boy he was brought up by his mother and his great-aunt, two women to whom he was devoted, the latter his first teacher. His marriage at the age of 40 to a 19-year-old, to his mother's marked disapproval, was predictably disastrous and was brought to an end, after the death of his two young sons, through illness and accident. In 1881 Saint-Saëns, on holiday with his wife, simply walked out, never to return. For the remaining forty years of his life, and particularly after the death of his mother in 1888, he lavished affection on his dogs and on his pupil Fauré, whom he had first met as a student at the Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris in 1861.

Saint-Saëns as a boy showed quick intelligence, wide interests and considerable musical precocity. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1848, a year after the death of Mendelssohn, and met with considerable encouragement from Berlioz, among others who were impressed by his gifts as a composer and as a pianist. The second of his five piano concertos, the Concerto in G Minor, Opus 22, was written in the space of seventeen days in 1868 at the request of Anton Rubinstein, with Saint-Saëns as soloist. The same concert brought a greater contemporary attraction in Sarasate's performance of the composer's first violin concerto, welcomed more warmly by the audience. Liszt, however, gave his gracious approval and encouragement: Saint-Saëns impressed him, and was, in any case, one of the few French pianists to perform Liszt's own piano transcriptions.

The concerto opens with a cadenza over a long, sustained note, followed by a first expressive theme, succeeded in turn by a second subject, again entrusted first to the soloist. The second movement is introduced by the timpani and relies on two contrasting themes of markedly different character, the first very much in the spirit of a scherzo, and the second of overtly popular character. In the last movement Saint-Saëns displays his command of brilliant piano-writing, ending the concerto with considerable panache.

Whatever the immediate reaction of the Cirque d'hiver audience -and critics had at least found the themes of the scherzo catchy enough - Saint-Saëns immediately turned his attention to the composition of a third piano concerto, to be performed for the first time in Leipzig before an unenthusiastic audience. The fourth concerto was written in 1875. It prompted Gounod's flattering comparison of its composer to Beethoven. Less conventional than its predecessor in form, the work is in two movements. The first of these offers a theme shared by soloist and orchestra and duly developed, before the appearance of a second section, an Andante in A flat. The second movement starts with a scherzo, thematically connected with the first movement, which later makes an open appearance, as does a lyrical episode from the second section of the first movement. A cadenza leads without a break into a transformed version of the first movement Andante theme in a finale that includes further reference to earlier ideas, giving the whole work a thematic unity not found in the other piano concertos of Saint-Saëns.

Idil Biret
Born in Ankara, Idil Biret began piano lessons at the age of three. She displayed an outstanding gift for music and graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with three first prizes when she was fifteen. She studied piano with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, and composition with Nadia Boulanger.

Since the age of sixteen she has performed in concerts around the world playing with major orchestras under the direction of conductors such as Monteux, Boult, Kempe, Sargent, de Burgos, Pritchard, Groves and Mackerras. She has participated in the festivals of Montreal, Persepolis, Royan, La Rochelle, Athens, Berlin, Gstaad and Istanbul. She was also invited to perform at the 85th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Backhaus and at the 90th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Kempff.

Idil Biret has received the Lily Boulanger Memorial Fund award (1954/1964), the Harriet Cohen/Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal (1959), the Polish Artistical Merit Award (1974) and was named Chevalier de l'Ordre du Merite (1976).

Philharmonia Orchestra, London The Philharmonia gave its first concert at London's King sway Hall under Sir Thomas Beecham in October 1945, and rapidly became recognised as one of the world's truly great orchestras. As such it was able to attract such legendary conductors as Furtwängler, Toscanini, Cantelli, Richard Strauss and, principally, Herbert von Karajan.

The Philharmonia remains the world's most recorded orchestra, its ever expanding discography containing over 800 recordings. As 'Britain's musical ambassador abroad', the orchestra's schedule for 1989/90 includes visits to the USA, Hong Kong, Australia, Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy and Holland.


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