About this Recording
GP609 - SAINT-SAËNS, C.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 3 (Burleson)
English  French 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Complete Piano Music • 3: Character Pieces


A seminal figure in the history of French Romantic music, Camille Saint-Saëns was also one of the greatest keyboard prodigies of the past 200 years. When he made his piano recital début at the age of ten 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.

Saint-Saëns embodies many contradictions as a composer. His concern for formal structures that had become less fashionable during his creative life was obviously strong, as he continued to write fugues, variations sets and sonatas throughout his career. He also wrote many pieces, however, that sought to evoke extramusical subject matter, sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly. One of his many great gifts was his prowess with a bountiful palette of textures, which he used to conjure or imply places, scenes, and personalities. Even when no narrative threads or extramusical contexts are explicit, his music often has the power to suggest such elements, as they do in his remarkable Six Bagatelles, Op 3, his first published compositions for piano, which opens this programme.

The Bagatelles were written in 1855, when Saint-Saëns was only twenty. The bagatelle was a very unusual genre choice for one’s début piano compositions at that time, given that essentially no significant composers had written in the form since Beethoven’s Op 126 Bagatelles thirty years earlier. And “Bagatelle” itself means “trifle”, with the genre generally involving short pieces of light character. Beethoven’s late Bagatelles, though, were acquiring a reputation of sublimity and depth through deceptive simplicity. Additionally, as the Op 126 Bagatelles were Beethoven’s final compositions for the piano, perhaps Saint-Saëns was attempting essentially to pick up where Beethoven had left off with his first published piano pieces.

Like Beethoven’s sets of Bagatelles, Saint-Saëns’ comprise a unified set of character pieces, actually defined in the score as being divided into two “Suites” of three pieces each. The opening Bagatelle, marked Poco sostenuto in G minor, begins with a sighing motive and sparse harmonies, and proceeds to a long winding fugato subject. These two elements continue to entwine themselves all the way to the piece’s conclusion. After this sometimes wistful, sometimes more defiant tragic opening comes the boisterous Bagatelle No 2, marked Allegro animato quasi presto and in E flat major. The opening section consists of an arcing melody accompanied by a bouncing ostinato texture containing many kinetic skips. A tender and lyrical middle section eventually accumulates energy leading to a retransition, and the opening material returns in quicker note values and more resonant textures. Bagatelle No 3 is extremely poignant, opening with a very fragile high register dotted figure, and a slowly descending melody in B flat major. Its seeming innocence is contrasted by an initially more mournful and then more positive and resolved slow melody in the middle register of the keyboard.

Suite No 2 starts with Bagatelle No 4, which strongly invokes the genre of Lieder Transcription, and calls to mind Robert Schumann more specifically. Actually, Schumann easily comes off as the strongest influence in these Bagatelles, with the vivid character pieces in Saint-Saëns’ set summoning the same genre that includes Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Kreisleriana and Noveletten. But in more specific ways, Saint-Saëns is already quite distinctive in his own writing. Bagatelle No 5, in D minor and marked Allegro molto, is a harrowing ride, cast in cascading sixteenth notes (semiquavers). The nervous energy and angst of the first part is followed by a dance-like “B” section marked by martial rhythms and trills. The first section then returns, leading to a thunderous climax. The final Bagatelle is the longest and the most affecting, acting as a definite culmination of the set. It begins the same way as Bagatelle No 1, but is followed by recitative phrases and free elements that begin to turn it into a rhapsodic fantasy. All of this acts as an introduction to a long Adagio melody in G major (the parallel major of Bagatelle No 1), which builds beautifully and then winds down, nestling into an intimate dolcissimo conclusion.

The Bagatelles are followed on my program by another set of six character pieces: the Album, Op 72. This emanates from the middle of Saint-Saëns’ career, and includes a wider range of colors, textures and genre associations. The opening Prélude, in E major, begins with a melody in tentative alternating notes between the right and left hands, initially in ethereal textures but gradually building into more ardent territory, and then surging in feverish arpeggios. A retransition over slowly descending chromatic bass tremolos leads us back to the tranquil delicacy of the opening material. The next piece, Carillon, is ominous, mysterious and often quite chromatic. It is also in 7/4 time, a highly unusual time signature for 1884. Saint-Saëns amplifies the ambiguity of the metre via his rhythmic setting, which makes it difficult for the ear to decide whether it hears 3 beats followed by 4, or 4 followed by 3. The first 3 beats, in any case, are occupied by the carillon itself, which initially peals “E-G-E” in low menacing tones, marked quasi campani. This carillon seems to emanate from a sinister place, and somewhat recalls Liszt’s late, spare chromatic works that were being written around the same time. No 3, a Toccata in F sharp minor, would not be out of place among Saint-Saëns’ études. A quick, relentless yet agile virtuoso workout in a quick 12/8 time, it acts as a demonic gigue set up by the preceding carillon. After the Toccata, the ensuing Valse is very welcoming, brimming with radiant positive energy. The waltz was a genre that Saint-Saëns also explored via five other separate solo piano opuses, as well as the Étude en forme de valse, recorded on Volume 1 of this series. No 5, Chanson napolitaine, is a brooding dark setting of an imagined folk-song, in 6/8 time and in C minor. The Finale (No 6) is an extremely effective climax, initially somewhat suggesting Schumann via his quick chordal triple meter movements from his own character sets. The middle Poco meno mosso section presents rivulets of chromatic quintuplets in the right hand against left hand triplets to create elusive, haunting music that eventually explodes back into the opening material. These two sections continue to alternate again in a more fragmented fashion, until the first section manifests itself a final time, culminating in a resplendent climax.

Saint-Saëns’ very next opus is the Rhapsodie d’Auvergne, Op 73, originally written for piano and orchestra, but like the first movement of the Third Piano Concerto (recorded on Volume 2) and Africa (which will appear on Volume 5), recast by the composer as a solo piano work. Here, Saint-Saëns is writing in a genre that includes other works such as his “Souvenirs” (Souvenir d’Italie, Op 80 and Souvenir d’Ismaïlia, Op 100) and Une nuit à Lisbonne, Op 63: tone poems exploring a sense of place via real or idiomatically imagined folk-songs and textures. The Auvergne region of south-central France has a particularly rich and distinctive heritage of folk-songs, one that was to be mined more thoroughly later, quite famously, by Joseph Canteloube in his Chants d’Auvergne. Saint-Saëns’ Rhapsodie opens with a long, ruminative, languid section in C major on a diatonic folk-theme, luminous with sun-drenched sonorities. The following section is a quick modal dance in 6/8 over a drone figure, in A minor with sprightly and intense rhythms. The next, ultimately climactic section is a quick series of variations on a scalar theme in C major initially presented in quick parallel thirds and sixths. This and the preceding section are quite virtuosic, and lead to a brillante climax that accelerates to a frenzy, until it is halted in its tracks by the arrival of an explosive augmented sonority. The opening material then makes one more appearance before accelerating again into a dazzling climax.

The next piece, Caprice sur les Airs de Ballet d’Alceste (1867), is one of Saint-Saëns’ most successful in the transcription or paraphrase genre. Compositions of this type were a very typical pursuit among nineteenth-century pianist-composers, with the most famous examples by Liszt. Here, Saint-Saëns more unusually appropriates themes from ballet movements (as well as an aria and a chorus number) from the opera Alceste, by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787) rather than opting for a more contemporary composer. As has been noted, Saint-Saëns was as attracted to music by the Baroque and Classical masters as he was to the most harmonically advanced works of Liszt, accounting for neo-Baroque, neo-Classical and Romantic elements all co-existing within his compositional oeuvre.

Despite the title “Caprice”, the work often projects the essence of a theme and variations, owing to its progression of self-contained episodes, and the “theme” returning at the very end unadorned. Some of the “variations”, however, are actually exploring entirely different musical material than what is presented in the theme. This “caprice” culminates with a long contrapuntal finale that seems to anticipate Busoni’s transcriptions in its scale, ingenious polyphonic maneuvers, and overt virtuosity.

The initial “theme” itself is minuet-like and declamatory, in large sonorities evoking a classical orchestra texturally. The following episode is deft and very lightly scored, exploring different material with many quick high register rolled chords, strongly succeeding at projecting the elegance and agility of the ballet. The next episode, in the parallel key of G minor, is a very affecting treatment of the Baroque lament genre, beautifully adapted to and expanded considerably for the piano. The third episode which, in fact, acts as a variation of the first episode’s theme, is a wonderful contrast—quick and sprightly, and mostly in rapid arabesques of high register thirty-second notes (demisemiquavers), and back in G major. What follows is the aforementioned massive fugal finale—exhilarating and very inventive. In its final stages, it transforms into something more resembling a piano concerto cadenza, concluding with layered trills, and a final, quick manifestation of the original theme.

The programme concludes with what are essentially three encore works. Les Cloches du soir, Op 85 (The Bells of Evening), like Carillon, begins and ends with tintinnabulation, but these modal bells evoke gentle bliss, not the ill omens that Op 72, No 2 seem to be portending. The Romance sans paroles (1871; without opus) starts with a melody in the centre of the keyboard accompanied by chords surrounding it in high and low registers. The melody itself is often spare, perhaps insinuating loneliness or the bitterness of a jilted paramour. The stabs of the block chords eventually transform into a series of trills accompanying the melody, which briefly becomes more nostalgically waltz-like before returning to its starker origins. The Feuillet d’Album, Op 169 is a tender, intimate miniature containing more than an air of wistful nostalgia, befitting Saint-Saëns’ final published solo piano work.

Geoffrey Burleson

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