About this Recording
8.571272 - SAINT-SAËNS, C.: Piano Concerto No. 5 / RAVEL, M.: Piano Concerto in G Major / Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (Biret Concerto Edition, Vol. 3)

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921): Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, ‘Egyptian’, Op. 103
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937): Concerto in G major • Concerto in D major for the left hand


There is an obvious affinity between certain composers that spanned successive eras. Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1835 and died in Algiers in 1921, and Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure in 1875 and died in Paris in 1937. The two composers were hardly alike in their physical build. The former came relatively late in music’s Romantic era and had a robust constitution until his final period, when his driving force for performance and composition and travels finally weakened both health and energy. His death at the ripe age of 85 was almost incidental in a life span that saw little change in his desire to please both his audiences and the important older composers who courted and supported him, and succeeded in achieving far greater fame in their own right. The latter, small-built, with aquiline features and a disposition for both mental and physical health problems, became an acknowledged genius, more classically influenced than his immediate contemporary Debussy. He had more respect instead for Saint-Saëns, whose journeys to Africa, Algiers and Egypt together with a sheaf of indelible memories, were re-introduced into his musical scores. They complemented Ravel’s music of Eastern origin, such as the Shéhérazade Overture and the much better known work for voice and piano of the same title, Mélodies hébraïques, and Chansons madécasses, and led to a glut of music of historical-pictorial significance which parallelled the general developments and new appreciation in art and painting.

The Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major of Saint-Saëns was given the title ‘Egyptian’ and reflects his impressions of Egypt and the Far East. Following two instrumental chords, the pianist’s beauty of touch against muted staccato bass strings, has violins playing their melody. Horns in unison accompany a ‘wave formation’ of string figurations alternating with the solo piano’s scale passages. A key change combines rippling solo work with a sequence of punctuated, repeated horns and accompanying violas. A new stealth-like, minor subject gives strength to contrasting figures involving bold, dividing octaves from the pianist coloured by solo horn, violin and selected wind in their combinations of bird-like accompaniment. Repeated horns and sweeping strings lead to the coda. A feeling for drama interweaves winding string figurations against solo winds at the start of the second, Andante movement. The whole atmosphere is steeped in the calm reaches of the orient where the soloist’s touching interval of the fourth combines with a choice of rippling colorations and cadenza passagework. A haunting motif for trombones ushers in a series of harmonically divided chordal chants of Eastern origin in the piano’s mid to higher pitch range. I am reminded of the cry of the Muezzin that takes place at sunset. The graded ripples combine with fresh mergings on the octave. Meanwhile, a new subject for oboe-flute decorated by upper strings is introduced. The idea is taken up by the solo pianist against a backwash of chords and alternating scale passages. Beneath the piano’s decorated chanting sequence is the impression of children singing. A dotted minor-key theme with tremolos, again emphasizing the interval of the fourth, signifies the musical fade-out. Various ideas have been suggested for the boisterous Finale where the rhythmic motions of a ship’s cutting action travelling through Mediterranean waters combine and compete with improvisatory groups of wind and brass players overshadowing their string colleagues. The central party here is the solo piano, who provides the middle course to the joyous celebration, a happy, melodious jazz-like ditty which disturbs the calm and serene atmosphere of blue skies with not a cloud in sight. With everyone joining in, suddenly, this all changes when a crescendo to the cacophony builds up, altering the directions to downward swirls in the wind velocity, suggesting a storm on the horizon. But no one, including Saint-Saëns and his fellow passengers, is prepared to hang about to witness it; so it is decided to allow Al Jolson, his entertainers and a chorus of piano and instrumentalists to end the proceedings on a note of glory.

Ravel’s two works for piano and orchestra, the Concerto in G major and the Concerto for the Left Hand, both date from 1931. In the former a clear observation of the score’s many expressive markings is of permanent importance. Allegramente crotchet = 116 allows time and space for preserving the music’s flow, its essential lightness, grace, the classical feeling and concept. The main pointers are, first, clarity of the piano glissandi and the pointillism of octave passages in the strings (figs. 1 / 2); second, the soloist’s leaping octaves, perfectly sustained at fig. 3; third, the solo French horn passage (2 before fig. 4), evenly flowing to link in with the mezzo-piano soloist and the solo clarinet at fig. 5; fourth, the piano’s extended espressivo passage, complete will figurations intact, to balance with wind groupings of ottavino, clarinet, trumpet, sustained violins with harp glissandi in between; fifth, the singing keyboard melody of the piano part; the modulation at fig. 7 that provides relief to the staccato chords that follow; sixth, the suggestive nuance in the ‘wandering theme sequence’ to link up with the solo bassoon at fig. 9; seventh, figs. 10/11, the rising/falling solo line, eventually leading back for a recapitulation of main subject matter. Note the nuances within the tutti passage-work, the slurred legato indications; eighth, a magical passage for solo harp, figs. 17–24, leading back to Tempo 1; ninth, the semi-quaver alternation of winds and solo horn that leads through to the magical, extended cadenza for piano, in some places supported by a sustained violin line; tenth, the Tempo primo at fig. 29 which prepares us for the ultimate long and exciting workout. The Adagio assai second movement, quaver = 76, comes as some kind of relief following the complex deviations in the opening movement. Although the E major, 3/4 espressivo melody might suggest nostalgia for one’s homeland, the solo support of flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, together with soft-toned French horn, gives the soloist a complete sense of freedom. The final die-away on a high B extended trill, with a pause added for good measure, prepares us for the onslaught of the Finale. Marked Presto, with no obvious attempt to add some metronomic indication, the pianist runs riot, in the company of rough protestations from wind and brass principals who do their best to trip her up. It is carnival time and the circus is in town, but nobody can afford to ignore the composer’s sheer effrontery and daring that inspired him to indulge in the high jinks that would have permeated his earlier, youthful years where cocking a snook at his elders was part of his formula for being original.

The Concerto for the Left Hand, dedicated to Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the Great War, is a work of enormous stature. The main marking, Lento, crotchet = 44, accommodates the intricately balanced parts for the left hand of the soloist and a wide spread of instruments with two each or one of select winds—a choice of nine instruments also features contra-bassoon during the long, opening stretches of the orchestral introduction, then four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, with tuba. Percussion, eight in all, includes wood-block, tam-tam and harp to complement the usual strings. To attempt providing a synopsis for this most orgiastic of pieces during the many changes of tempi, rhythm and piano cadenzas of constantly mounting tensions is futile. In contrast to the dance-like characterizations for specially selected choirs of wind instruments and strings, where lightly tarnished Parisian connections shine through, the heavily scored writings of the remainder predominate. But there are important rival factions, where a fast fanfare element (figs. 15–19—dropping quavers in piano, flute, trumpet) of intermingling groups of residents and party factions attempts to introduce a sarcastic fun factor into the proceedings. Minor-key dissents in winds and brass reflect other ideas. Nothing, however, will stop the final process of sorting out the complications and restoring a state of normality, instead. During the final piano cadenza, Ravel restores any ambiguities in his key wanderings and, with the aid of supporting members of his orchestra, brings the work to a triumphant conclusion.

Bill Newman

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