About this Recording
8.573477 - SAINT-SAËNS, C.: Piano Concertos, Vol. 2 - No. 3 / Rhapsodie d'Auvergne / Africa / Caprice-Valse (Descharmes, Malmö Symphony, Soustrot)
English  French 

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

 

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.

Composed over a period spanning four decades, Saint-Saëns’s five piano concertos vary significantly in character, with each proposing its own set of challenges to the performers, especially the soloist. The Third Concerto, which received its première in the Leipzig Gewandhaus with the composer as the pianist, was written in 1869, just one year after the Second (which was separated from the First by a decade). Its placement after the Second—undoubtedly the most popular of the five—is unfortunate, resulting in the Third being considered very much the ‘Cinderella’ of Saint-Saëns’ piano concertos. Unlike the second, it follows traditional concerto form, with a brisk first movement in sonata form, a slow second movement, and a fast finale.

The first movement, in E flat, opens with a succession of rippling piano arpeggios, above which a heroic first subject (which bears more than a passing resemblance to the opening theme of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony) is heard in the horn, followed by the woodwind. While the form of the concerto follows convention, harmonically it is much more adventurous, for instead of the molto tranquillo second subject being in the dominant key of B flat, as one might expect, it is initially presented in the tonally distant key of D, later resolving in A. Saint-Saëns further challenges convention by including a cadenza-like passage (4:30) before the development—a highly unusual feature, since cadenzas would traditionally occur towards the end of a movement. An animated development section follows with the re-introduction of the orchestra, after which a second cadenza is heard. The recapitulation is announced with the utmost tenderness, by a solo flute supported by a soft bed of tremolo strings, before the first subject is stated more proudly in the brass.

The somewhat daring harmonic wanderings of the first movement are dwarfed by those of the second. Indeed, the ambiguous tonality at the beginning of this movement was considered so extreme at the concerto’s première that it caused a disturbance among the audience. Flanked on either side by movements in E flat, this central movement begins with octave E flats in the orchestra, but descends chromatically and finally settles is in the remote key of E. Out of this initial instability grows a passionate melody in the orchestra alone, followed by a rather dark, foreboding second theme for the soloist’s left hand only. The first theme returns and is developed throughout the movement, which concludes with the return of the second theme, rather ominously presented in the lower strings.

Following the model of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, the finale continues attacca—without a break. It begins with a sense of anticipation generated by a timpani roll coupled with teasing hints of a theme in the strings, before the piano bursts in triumphantly, proving the threatening ending of the second movement to be a complete red herring. A second theme enters, shared between the piano and strings but doesn’t last long, as the first theme confidently returns and is subjected to a series of modulations as the soloist presents an impressive display of pianistic pyrotechnics, which continue to the end of this jovial concluding movement.

Saint-Saëns was also interested in writing works for piano and orchestra with a freer, more rhapsodic form, as demonstrated by the three single-movement works on this recording. When we think of musical representations of the Auvergne—that sublime, mountainous region in France—the name Joseph Canteloube instantly springs to mind, thanks to the composer’s numerous arrangements of folksongs from that area. However those arrangements, made between 1923 and 1930, were preceded by Saint-Saëns’ Rhapsodie d’Auvergne of 1884. Rarely heard today, this work for piano and orchestra is also based on a folk-song, incorporating a tune that the composer heard a washerwoman singing in a mountain village, and it is an uncommon example of his use of a melody from a region in his own country. The theme is heard from the opening bars, the introduction to a long, languid first section in C major, which is followed by a quick, sprightly dance in the relative minor (A) over a drone. The piano initially converses with a rustic-sounding melody in the oboe, before the whole orchestra enters. Next comes a quick series of variations on a theme, back in C major, affording displays of virtuosic dexterity from the soloist. An accelerating, climactic frenzy builds up, but is dramatically stopped in its tracks by the return of the opening folk-song in the horns, making a final appearance, and leading into a brief but dazzling coda.

Like the Rhapsodie d’Auvergne and indeed the first movement of the Third Piano Concerto, Saint-Saëns’ Africa was originally written for piano and orchestra but later arranged for solo piano. Following the death of his mother, Saint-Saëns embarked on a three-month-long cruise, which took him to Ceylon and Egypt. Africa was begun in Cadiz in 1889 and completed in Cairo in 1891. It also resembles the Rhapsodie d’Auvergne in that it makes use of folk melodies. The composer’s study of North African folk music is reflected in the often syncopated themes, and the climax (7:01) is based on a Tunisian folk-tune. Of all his pieces for piano and orchestra, Africa is undoubtedly one of Saint-Saëns’ most colourful scores, with its animated piano part and vibrant orchestration.

The Caprice-Valse Wedding Cake’ for piano and strings dates from 1886. The nickname comes from its origin as a wedding present for the composer’s pianist-friend Caroline de Serres (who became Caroline Montigny-Rémaury). It’s a piece full of charm and grace, perfectly emulating the characteristics of a ball. Scarcely a minute into the work, Saint-Saëns’ trademark sense of fun is heard in a brief but highly unexpected modulation from A flat major to E major. This passes almost as soon as it has begun, returning to A flat and the decorative piano writing heard at the opening. The modulations continue throughout, including a calmer section beginning in C sharp minor, though the playful side of this most charismatic of composers is never absent for long.

¹ It should be noted that although Saint-Saëns ventured into neoclassicism—a term very much associated with Stravinsky—these works 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.


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