About this Recording
8.573478 - SAINT-SAËNS, C.: Piano Concertos, Vol. 3 - Nos. 4 and 5 (Descharmes, Malmö Symphony, Soustrot)
English  French 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Piano Concertos • 3

 

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 debut at the age of 10, at which he famously announced to the audience afterwards that he would happily perform any of Beethoven’s 32 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 20th century. 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.

Of the five piano concertos Saint-Saëns composed, the Fourth does not enjoy a particularly elevated status. At one point its popularity rivalled that of the Second (by far the most popular), but in recent times this has waned significantly, both on recordings and in the concert hall. This is a shame, because the Fourth reveals Saint-Saëns at his most inspired and innovative, not least in its unorthodox form. Eschewing the traditional three-movement form, which he adopted for all his other piano concertos, it bears a structural similarity to his Symphony No. 3 (the ‘Organ Symphony’), written 11 years later in 1886. Both works comprise two ‘official’ movements, each of which is divided into what might be termed two ‘submovements’. The Fourth also shares the same key as the Organ Symphony: C minor. Dedicated to Anton Door, a professor of piano at the Vienna Conservatory, it was premiered in Paris on 31 October 1875, at the opening of Edouard Colonne’s Concerts de l’Association artistique du Châtelet, with the composer as soloist.

The concerto opens with a rather quizzical first subject in the strings, beginning with an ascending tritone (C to F sharp) known in medieval times as the diabolus in musica (‘the devil in music’) due to its extreme dissonance, and it was because of this association that Saint-Saëns prominently featured the tritone interval in Danse macabre, written the previous year. The theme is immediately imitated by the piano, resulting in a conversation between the strings and piano that continues for several minutes, with the theme subjected to increasingly elaborate variations. Eventually the rest of the orchestra enters and this first subject continues to dominate, until a set of gently rising and falling rapid arpeggios in the piano (that seems to anticipate the piano concertos of Rachmaninov) paves the way for a second, more lyrical theme in A flat in the woodwind—the Andante section of this first movement (1 5:14). This serene chorale melody—which bears a striking resemblance to the chorale theme in the finale of the Organ Symphony—is later treated in the grandest Lisztian fashion by the piano (7:44) before the serenity returns, with the movement closing in a reflective vein.

The Allegro vivace starts in the original key of C minor with a playful scherzo, comprising a theme adapted from the original chromatic subject of the first movement (with that distinctive tritone). The faster tempo of this revisited material gives the sense of a lively dance, after which the piano leads the orchestra into a new, brief but energetic theme (2 1:54). As in the first movement, this excitement gives way to an Andante, introduced by a series of rather sombre fugal entries (4:26) and a brief return of the first movement’s chorale melody. Out of this, in a somewhat menacing manner, the piano ascends with a flurry of double octaves, followed by a triumphant trumpet fanfare, leading to the jubilant finale which is based once more on the chorale theme, but now in 6/8 time (7:26). The concerto concludes with the piano in an impressive sequence of cascades, bringing the orchestra to a rousing finish.

Two decades separate No. 4 from Saint-Saëns’s last venture in the genre. The Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103, known as the ‘Egyptian’, was composed in 1896. It was written for the composer himself to play at his own Jubilee Concert on 6 May that year, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his debut at the Salle Pleyel in 1846, and was both a popular and critical success. The concerto’s slightly misleading nickname stems from its place of composition, namely the temple town of Luxor, which the composer visited on one of his frequent vacations to Egypt to escape the Parisian winters. I say ‘misleading’ because the music also displays influences from Javanese and Spanish as well as Middle Eastern music. Rather than being exclusively Egyptian, the work is a rich tapestry of cultural influences—the inevitable result of such a frequent and extensive traveller.

As is common in Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos, the opening Allegro animato alternates between two themes in a free sonata-form structure. The first of these, comprising, simple stepwise rising and falling phrases, is heard in the piano and is soon imitated by the orchestra. The technical demands of the piano writing soon make themselves known through a series of descending chords echoing between the two hands (3 1:09)—evoking the spirit of Brahms’ two piano concertos, as does the call-and-response writing in the strings that follows (1:44). A sublime, melancholic second subject emerges in the piano (2:14), momentarily balancing the playful excitement of the preceding episode, though the piano’s energy soon returns, now substituting Brahmsian counterpoint for the virtuosic chromaticism of Liszt (3:27). The composer continues to develop the two themes until a brief figure, exchanged among the woodwinds, signals the coda that draws the movement to a close, the piano gently decorating a surface of soft, sustained strings, with a final delicate flourish at the very end.

The Andante, usually the slow and expressive middle movement in a concerto, begins suddenly with the timpani punctuating an explosive orchestral chord and intense string writing, above which the piano plays a set of emphatic runs up and down the keyboard, followed by a strident, exotic-sounding theme. The influence of the Javanese Gamelan (which Saint-Saëns reportedly dismissed at the 1889 Paris Exhibition) is heard in a brief passage of highly unusual chords in the piano (4 1:42), after which comes a section that once again seems to predict Rachmaninov (even more so at (3:08), where the solo flute and filigree piano writing vividly recall part of the first movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3). This serves as an introduction to the explicitly Egyptian part of the concerto, with a theme based on a Nubian love song that Saint-Saëns heard boatmen sing as he sailed on the Nile in a ‘dahabiah’ passenger boat (3:37). Towards the end of this section, (6:58) he paints an extraordinary sonic portrait of chirping Nile crickets and croaking frogs courtesy of repeated figures in the upper range of the piano, before taking us on a quick tour of Spain (7:55)—with rapid-fire repeated notes—and a return to those strange, Gamelan-inspired chords. The movement ends at it began, the solo piano above feverish strings, which gradually die away.

The comparatively brief Molto allegro begins with low rumbles in the piano, suggesting the sounds of ships’ propellers (Saint-Saëns said that it represented ‘the joy of a sea crossing’) before exhibiting a spirited theme that exploits the full extent of the keyboard. A second lighthearted melody is introduced (5 1:51), after which the piano continues in its virtuosic display as the woodwinds and strings play this second theme. The two themes combine and intertwine, creating a tension that Saint-Saëns uses to great dramatic effect, concluding the concerto with a typically triumphant flourish. He was presumably rather pleased with this movement, later adapting its themes in 1899 for the brilliantly mischievous Toccata that closes his piano Études, Op. 111.

Dominic Wells


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