About this Recording
8.573476 - SAINT-SAËNS, C.: Piano Concertos, Vol. 1 - Nos. 1 and 2 (Descharmes, Malmö Symphony, Soustrot)
English  French 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Piano Concertos • 1

 

If musicians were to be judged purely on the merits of their formative years, Camille Saint-Saëns would have little to fear. Born in Paris in 1835, he is one of the most extraordinary musical prodigies in the history of Western music. As a highly gifted pianist he made his concert début at the age of ten, at which he famously announced to the audience afterwards that he would happily perform any of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas as an encore. Having studied at the Paris Conservatoire, he followed a conventional path as a church organist, first at Saint-Merri, Paris, and later at La Madeleine (the official church of the French Empire), where he remained for some two decades and was praised for his improvisatory prowess. He was much in demand throughout Europe and the Americas, where he enjoyed a successful career as a pianist and composer, though the perception of Saint-Saëns the composer changed throughout his lifetime, which coincided with a period of revolutionary changes in the arts. During his youth, he championed such progressive figures as Wagner and Liszt, yet in his later years he revealed a much more conservative approach (both in his music and in several essays)—an approach rooted in tradition and reactionary to the innovative developments that Debussy, Stravinsky and others were bringing to the French music scene in the early twentieth century.¹ His written comments in particular caused him to fall out of fashion towards the end of his life, though the sheer optimism and attractiveness of his music ensured his immortality in the canon of French romantic composers.

Saint-Saëns’ five piano concertos vary significantly in character, which is unsurprising given that they span almost four decades. While they may lack the rigorous formal development heard in, for example, the piano concertos of Brahms (born just two years earlier), they nevertheless represent an important phase in the evolution of the French piano concerto. His prodigious gifts as a pianist are clearly evident in the often-florid piano writing, though Saint-Saëns eschewed virtuosity for its own sake, and in all five concertos piano and orchestra are treated very much as equals.

The first concerto was written in 1858, when the composer was still in his early twenties. While this is by no means the most popular of the piano concertos (that accolade is reserved for the second of the five), its importance should not be underestimated. When we think about French piano concertos, it is not difficult to bring to mind famous examples, such as the keyboard concertos of Poulenc, or Ravel’s pair of piano concertos, but looking back beyond the twentieth century, instances of piano concertos germinating on French soil become increasingly sparse. Indeed, Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 1 is the first piano concerto by a major French composer.²

Antiphonal, ascending arpeggio horn calls announce the start of the piece, before the piano enters with a series of imitative arpeggiated figures. The horns return, joined by the woodwind and finally the strings, who establish this as the concerto’s main motto, which recurs throughout the movement. This is succeeded by the first statement of a second recurring theme: a simple, descending sequence in the violins, decorated by delicate triplets in the piano, which then takes over the theme from the violins—sounding somewhat Rachmaninov-esque as it does so. Next comes a scherzo-like interplay between the strings (on the beat) and piano (off the beat), broken by the return of the motto in the horns and followed once again by the second theme heard earlier in the violins. These two main ideas continue to dominate the remainder of the movement, right through to its jubilant conclusion.

The second movement is undoubtedly the most forward-looking, with the orchestra pared down to include just strings, clarinet and bassoon. The melancholic opening theme is given to the piano, supported by funereal crotchets in the double basses with pizzicato violins. What follows is a fascinating, improvisatory mini-cadenza for solo piano—the first of several—notated without bar-lines and centred around a phrase alternating between triplets and pairs of semiquavers. The full body of strings enters, softly playing arco, and the clarinet makes its first appearance with a beautifully lyrical phrase, underlined by the bassoon—offering a brief glimpse of light in the darkness. But this is short-lived, and the pathos of the opening theme returns, casting its shadow once again.

The exquisite gloom of the central movement is swept aside as we enter the finale, which from the outset reveals Saint-Saëns’ penchant for novelty and playfulness, anticipating the style of his younger contemporary and compatriot, Poulenc. After the excitable first subject of this sonata-form finale comes the slightly calmer second subject—the sensible, older sibling trying to control the capricious first subject, without much success. As the movement approaches its final bars, the exultant motto theme of the first movement returns, bringing a cyclic quality to the conclusion of this early venture into the piano concerto genre.

A decade separates Saint-Saëns’ First Piano Concerto from his Second. Composed in 1868, this is by far the most popular and frequently performed of the five (though the Fifth Egyptian’ also enjoys regular outings). One of several original features in the Second is the unorthodox tempo progression of its traditional, three-movement structure: not the expected fast – slow – fast, but slow – fast – fast, or more precisely, Andante sostenuto – Allegro scherzando – Presto. Several composer-homages are to be found in the first movement: at the beginning, the serious extended solo passage (which originated from one of his improvisations at the organ—hence the tonic pedal notes) clearly pays tribute to Bach; the orchestral entry that follows (almost certainly unintentionally) recalls the dramatic opening chords of Mozart’s Don Giovanni; while the main theme of this movement was borrowed from Fauré, one of Saint-Saëns’ pupils, who had decided against using it in an early setting of the Tantum ergo.

The impishness of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream imbues the middle-movement Allegro scherzando—one can almost see the mischievous Puck bouncing off the piano keys—and this initial, elfin theme is followed by a brief but noble second theme, introduced by the cellos. Both themes compete for attention throughout and are subjected to occasional modulations into minor keys, though the dancing piano maintains the irrepressibly light-hearted spirit of the movement.

Hot on the heels of the scherzo comes the finale, a bustling tarantella (a rapid, wild dance with fast triplets) which demands almost constant virtuosic bravura from the soloist. Written in sonata form, the first subject includes a pair of descending, chromatic phrases in the horns resembling one of the composer’s famous works: Danse macabre (6, 0:41), whereas the development section is dominated by a trill-obsessed figure from the second subject, heard in the piano while the woodwind intone a chorale-like melody (another Bachian reference). The coda maintains the relentless, repeated triplets, and despite the faster tempo the concerto concludes in much the same way as it began, with a profound sense of seriousness.

Saint-Saëns’ Allegro appassionato, Op. 70—not to be confused with the more famous, eponymous showpiece for cello and orchestra, with which it shares no common material—was composed in 1884 and is best known today in its version for solo piano. It begins with a bold, three note motif, F#-G#-B#, denying the listener a clear tonal centre, before finally establishing the key of C#. This motif dominates the entire piece, which sounds decidedly Lisztian, not only in its virtuosic piano writing and moments of tonal ambiguity, but also in its use of a recurring motif and its orchestration—all of which bear resemblances to the Hungarian composer’s work, not least his Faust Symphony (1857) and his Piano Sonata in B minor (1853).

Dominic Wells

¹ It should be noted that although Saint-Saëns ventured into neoclassicism—a term very much associated with Stravinsky—these were stylistically very different from Stravinsky’s treatment of neoclassicism, which often laced baroque and classical forms with modern harmonies. Saint-Saëns’ forays into this style pre-date those of Stravinsky, and were born out of a love of 17th-century French dance forms, as well as his preparation of new editions of the works of baroque composers including Rameau and Lully.

² Earlier models do exist by more obscure figures, such as François- Adrien Boieldieu, whose piano concerto dates from 1792.


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