About this Recording
GP605 - SAINT-SAENS, C.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 2 (Burleson)
English  French 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Complete Piano Works • 2

 

A seminal figure in the history of French Romantic music, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835- 1921) was also one of the greatest keyboard prodigies of the past 200 years. When he made his piano recital debut at the age of 10 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. Saint-Saëns was a prolific composer in all genres, and thus it is not at all surprising that he created a bountiful body of works for both organ and piano.

Volume 2 of my traversal of Saint-Saëns complete piano works focuses on the baroque and classical forms that the composer loved recasting into more Romantic realms, and transformed by his dynamic, imaginative and ingenious ideas: sonata-allegro form movements, suites, theme and variations sets, and fugues. The Allegro d’après le 3ème Concerto, Op. 29, is essentially a solo piano version of the opening movement of the Third Piano Concerto, with the essential elements of the orchestra’s material ingeniously combined and integrated within the solo piano part. The piece’s introduction actually presents the main theme, but via proto-impressionistic watery textures that prefigure the world of Ravel’s Jeux d’eaux. This leads to a declamatory statement of the opening theme once the main body of the movement is reached. The often cascading virtuosic sections alternate with two slow, lyrical rhapsodic passages, and the piece includes instances of “exotic” modal harmonies that Saint-Saëns would increasingly incorporate into his compositional palette. The other “Allegro” on this program is the Allegro appassionato, Op. 70, one of the best known of Saint-Saëns’ works. Like the Op. 29 Allegro, it also exists in a version for piano and orchestra, but in this case, the concertante version has been vastly eclipsed in popularity by the solo piano version. The piece begins with a three note motif in heavy octaves (F#-G#-B#), which because of the order of notes and lack of harmony, is initially tonally disorienting – a not unusual trick for Saint-Saëns, who begins the Op. 97 Thème varié, and one of the Op. 161 Fugues with similar maneuvers. The three notes are immediately fleshed out by an upward B# dominant 7th arpeggio, however, and the ear is then properly aligned to the key of C#. The three note motive proves ubiquitous throughout the fast tempo material in the piece, initially with a surge of sequential sextuplet figures that all start with the motive. As was the case with Op. 29, the Allegro appassionato is broken up by two lyrical interludes, although much more fragile and intimate in nature than the more ardent, ethereal and mysterious slow music in Op. 29.

The final work on this program represents a form that Saint-Saëns had explored for more than five decades, and one that he imbued not only with brilliant craft and invention, but highly individual character. The Six Fugues, Op 161 come off far less as a collection of academic fugues and much more as a suite of dynamic character pieces that follow a very effective dramatic arc. They are dedicated to Saint-Saëns’s pupil Isidor Philipp (1863–1958), a brilliant pianist, composer and pedagogue in his own right. The four-voiced Fugue No 1 (Allegro moderato), in A Major, proceeds through several exploratory episodes where Saint-Saëns subjects the theme frequently to inversion (turning the theme upside down) and stretto (thematic entries very closely spaced, piling on top of one another). JS Bach generally used stretto at a single climactic point in many of his fugues, but Saint-Saëns uses it frequently within many of the fugues, almost with abandon at times. At one climactic point in the first fugue, Saint-Saëns also has the theme in augmentation, where it is intoned with radiant energy in the bass. Fugue No 2 (Poco allegro – grazioso), in E fat major, is lighter and lilting in character. Its 3 voice texture is given added energy by an intermittent countersubject in running 16th notes. Fugue No 3 (Allegretto) is the scherzo of the set, a G Major 3-voice fugue on a fanfare motive characterized by pairs of repeated notes. Sprightly, complex and quite difficult, the fugue ends just after a final “fake out” where Saint-Saëns briefly threatens to end the piece in the parallel mode of G minor. Fugue No 4 (Allegro moderato), in 4 voices, is by far the most chromatic, dissonant one of the set, at least in its opening and closing sections. The subject announces itself with a leap of two notes in long values that are tonally very disorienting (F#-Eb), continuing Saint-Saëns’ penchant for sometimes starting pieces in this manner, as he does with Opp 70 and 97 on this program. The subject continues with a long sequence of twisty 8th notes, where he finally defines the key as G minor, but just barely. Much of the middle of the fugue is much less dissonant, in a higher register, and even sometimes intimate in character. The episode at the exact center of the fugue is in high register triplets, and in a very mellifluous A flat major, as distant in every respect from the opening as is imaginable. Fugue No 5 (Andantino quasi allegretto), a 3 voice fugue in E Major, is in many ways similar to Fugue No 2: in 3/8 time with a light, swaying quality, congenial and attractive. The subject is simply a brief arabesque followed by an octave leap and a trill. It is very effective coming in between the imposing 4th fugue and the climactic Fugue No 6 (Maestoso, poco allegro) that is the longest of the set. Cast in C Major, it both begins and ends with an air of celebration, right from its opening subject of four slow descending scale notes, followed by the same 4 notes rising two octaves higher and four times faster! The subject then continues to spin out for another two measures, and ends up being 31 notes in length. Treating such a long subject to continuous counterpoint can be a formidable challenge, but not surprisingly, Saint-Saëns rises very easily to the occasion. There are five main episodes to this fugue. The second is a more chromatic, angst-ridden statement in the distant key of B minor in 16th notes. The key of B minor may even symbolize death: it is at the opposite end of the chromatic scale from C (the key of the piece), and B minor sometimes represented an affect of death in the baroque era. The fact that this is the final major piano work by Saint-Saëns adds further intrigue to this potential key-related symbolism. The B minor episode gradually dissipates, the note values get slower and Saint-Saëns wanders through various keys via some surprising modulations, eventually reaching another distant key of E flat major in a high, poignant register. Fragile in character, it could not be more contrasting in every way to the previous episode. Via a series of sequences, the musical material gradually descends and alights on a repeated “G” dominant pedal tone. Saint-Saëns slowly builds from here to a resplendent climax where the four slow descending notes of the fugue are stacked both above and below the faster notes at the end of the fugue subject. The final climax is in huge, heavy sonorities, ending with a final, explosive C Major chord, as bold and appropriate a final statement as Saint-Saëns could make in his piano music. Here, he seems to be also suggesting the realm of the pipe organ, the other keyboard instrument to which Saint-Saëns made such indelible and dynamic contributions.


Geoffrey Burleson


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