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GP601 - SAINT-SAENS, C.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (Burleson)
English  French 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Complete Piano Études

 

A seminal figure in the history of French Romantic music, Camille Saint-Saëns was also one of the greatest keyboard prodigies of the past two hundred years. When he made his piano recital début at the age of ten in the Salle Pleyel, he announced to the audience that he would be pleased to perform any of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas as an encore. a good deal later, Liszt referred to him as the greatest organist on earth. Over the course of more than forty years, Saint-Saëns wrote three sets of ingenious, groundbreaking piano études. His initial Six Études, Op 52 were written in 1877, when Saint-Saëns was already a mature composer, then in his forties. No 1 Prélude is a fitting and very effective opener, and a purveyor of the tradition of opening preludes in C major, with its exuberant, unrestrained virtuosity, and “testing” of all registers of the keyboard. The first section alternates sweeping right-hand arpeggios with quick runs of alternating chords between the hands. after a massive cadence on the dominant, a rather sinister rising pattern in chromatic broken chords increases gradually to a peak, falls registrally, and is followed by a climactic ascending scale in double thirds and a final, resolute cadence. No 2 Pour l’indépendance des doigts is pensive and lyrical, and creates a melody via stressing constantly changing notes within repeated chords, communicated to the pianist via one large notehead within each chord serving as the melodic one:

There is no real precedent for this kind of writing or notation in the history of piano music, although Saint-Saëns’ pupil Isidor Philipp would expand this idea with his two volumes of Exercises for the Independence of the Fingers, which became widely influential in its own right. No 3 Prelude and Fugue in F minor showcases one of Saint-Saëns’ most central talents and predilections: writing keyboard music in the Baroque style, while still bringing original elements of structure, counterpoint and occasionally more Romantic textures to the fore. The Fugue, marked Animato, has a very chromatic, sequenced subject, followed by an episode exploiting a different, complementary subject. Octaves eventually arrive, essentially doubling one of the voices, and reaching a climax with parallel octaves and final cadence. Saint-Saëns was an ingenious contrapuntal composer, often including very intricate fugal manoeuvres when writing in this style. The preceding Prelude is a breathlessly intense exercise in repeated intervals and chords between the hands, in very fast triplets, and ranging from explosive moments to writing of great delicacy. No 4 Étude de rythme, is a comprehensive study of two-against-three cross-rhythms, cast as a kind of lyrical episode, and not unlike some of Liszt’s shorter character pieces. No 5 is another Prelude and Fugue,this time in A Major. The Prelude features very difficult undulating parallel sixths within each hand, creating a kind of shimmering texture, against which an arching melody develops. The hands continue to switch rôles, until finally both are relegated to the otherworldly parallel sixth textures, requiring great stamina to pull off a steady projection of diffuse mystery, and an illusion of ease. The Fugue is a glorious creation, intimate and quietly euphoric in character, with a broad scale to match its long subject. The set comes to a climax with No 6 En forme de valse, which is often performed separately from the set. It has great charm, wit, verve and virtuosity, and is an extremely effective closer.

Saint-Saëns next set of études would not arrive until 22 years later, in 1899. His set of Six Études, Op 111 opens with No 1 Tierces majeures et mineurs (Major and Minor Thirds), which clearly appropriates Chopin’s Étude in G sharp minor, Op 25, No 6, as a departure point. Both works are in the same key, and both open with the same set of notes in thirds undulating in the right hand. The comparisons end there, however, as Saint-Saëns’ étude proceeds in a completely different vein, with a pensive melody in the right hand thumb developing while the upper fingers of the right hand continue projecting a winding stream of parallel thirds, later to include fifths and sixths as well. In the middle section, the left hand takes over the parallel third textures, with the hands then alternating them just before a return to the opening material. No 2 Traits chromatiques (Chromatic Elements) is a fleet scherzo-like étude with constant chromatic runs in one or both hands, and a slower melody that progresses through the thumb of either hand, and in octaves in various climactic passages. No 3 Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor starts with a prelude of sweeping grandeur and intensity, and difficult chord sequences in either hand that include both moving thirds and a repeated note pedal-point. The ensuing fugue begins with a chromatic subject, and evokes the fugues of Bach’s organ toccatas, ending as it does with a cadenza, and preceded by the subject in left-hand octaves, suggesting organ pedals. The next étude, Les cloches de las Palmas (The Bells of Las Palmas), is both haunting and extremely forward-looking, anticipating impressionistic textures and effects that do not otherwise really appear in the literature until Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, published two years later (Liszt’s Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este can be seen, however, as a forerunner of both works). The étude begins with a right-hand repeated figure, soon accompanied by slow sonorities in the left hand, projecting an initial carillon-like tintinnabulation. This passage serves as an introduction for the main body of the work, with fast, liquid sextuplets in the right hand (difficult because the first two notes of each figure are repeated) containing the melodic notes at the beginning of each sextuplet, and slow, haunting, sometimes quite dissonant chords in the left hand. This is followed by a more dissonant harmonic variation of all the preceding material, and a melancholy coda exploiting the same textures. No 5 Tierces majeures chromatiques (Chromatic Major Thirds) is one of the most difficult of the études, a brief scherzo with constant chromatic major thirds in either hand, with occasional forays into minor sixths (the inversion of a major third). The concluding, brilliant Toccata is essentially a transformation for solo piano of the last movement of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No 5, a very difficult rondo that relentlessly explores many bravura techniques and textures, even including references to ragtime via the étude’s principal theme. It serves as a fantastic culmination of the preceding études, in that so many of the techniques found in the first five études are embedded somewhere in the Toccata.

Thirteen years later, Saint-Saëns wrote the Six Études for the Left Hand Alone, Op 135, written for Madame Caroline de Serres. De Serres often performed duo piano works with Saint-Saëns, and requested a set of left-hand études when her right hand became incapacitated. These works are very different in character, spirit and musical language from what one finds in the preceding études. Arranged as a quasi-Baroque suite, the textures are often very spare and elemental, the harmonic language more diatonic, and the models are the French Baroque masters Couperin and Rameau, who similarly inspired Debussy and Ravel to write some of their most significant works. The opening sprightly, elegant Prélude contrasts a quick arpeggiated motive with slower melodic material, and is followed by an ingenious Fugue in the same key of G major. No 3 Moto perpetuo follows a single melodic strand on an initially delicate journey leading to a radiant climax. Saint-Saëns’ opening tempo and mood indication provides very specific information, helpful in unlocking the essence of the work: Doux et tranquille – sans vitesse et très également (sweetly and tranquilly, without velocity and very evenly). No 4 Bourrée, in G minor, is the most extensive work among the neo-Baroque pieces in the set, with some very kinetic motion from the left hand through the piano’s registers. The Bourrée also features a striking middle section in G major over a constant G drone, marked pianissimo and with the damper pedal sustained for a full 48 bars, conjuring a tableau of a far-away folkdance, or one remembered from the distant past. No 5 Élégie entirely breaks the mould of the Baroque suite genre, and is a deeply affecting work, cast in a late Romantic harmonic language that is foreign to the other more neo-classical études in this set. The Élégie is filled with great variety, invention and poignant lyricism. The concluding Gigue is a very effective closer, impishly fading out in its coda into the depths of the piano’s register.


Geoffrey Burleson


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