About this Recording
GP625 - SAINT-SAËNS, C.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 4 (Burleson)

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Complete Piano Music • 4: Dances and Souvenirs


There is a long history of composers writing instrumental dances that were and are intended as “concert” works, initially flourishing in the Baroque era. By the late 18th century, the allemandes, courantes and gigues that were once all the rage were all but outmoded, save for the minuet, which appears copiously in works of Haydn, Mozart and in Beethoven’s early period. By the mid-19th century the fast triple metre of the waltz prevailed, along with the wealth of musical variety and contrast composers brought to its manifestations. Chopin codified the waltz as a stand-alone solo piano genre, as well as the much more vernacular, and resolutely Polish mazurkas and polonaises.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) inhabited all of these eras as a composer of concert music in dance genres, even though his first works didn’t see the light of day until the mid-19th century. Among his many formidable musical feats was as a pioneering editor and advocate for French Baroque music, especially works of Lully and Rameau, spearheading the revival of this music in the late 19th century. More famously to the 19th century public, Saint-Saëns was one of the greatest keyboard prodigies of the past 200 years. When he made his piano recital debut at the age of 10 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. Not surprisingly, a good deal of his music is quite virtuosic, including many of the “concert dance” works and pieces he called “souvenirs” on this programme.

On Volume 2 of this series, I recorded the composer’s Suite, Op. 90, written in 1891, but including neo-Baroque minuet, gavotte and gigue movements. The present volume opens with Saint-Saëns’ Gavotte, Op. 23 which, along with the Mazurka No. 2, Op. 24, was originally part of the musical fabric of Saint-Saëns’ first opera Le Timbre d’Argent. The Gavotte has strong, characteristic rhythms, evoking its Baroque model in the “A” section, but with much more resonant sonorities. The “B” section is much more unusual, and colouristically foreign to the Baroque, with long pedal tones in the piano’s bass register, requiring sustained pedalling through changing harmonies, and sounding like a harbinger of Debussy at times, despite having been written in 1871 four years before Debussy was born.

Saint-Saëns wrote three Mazurkas for solo piano, in 1862, 1871 and 1882 respectively. All three are in minor keys. The Mazurka No. 1, Op. 21, opens with a dark theme in G minor, contrasted by more capricious material in a higher register, and in major. The “B” section, in the parallel major, has more of an “ethereal waltz” character to it, with very memorable arching phrases, and some unexpected key changes. The Mazurka No. 2, Op. 24 projects much more of a jagged, angular character in its opening phrases. There is also a greater wealth of musical variety, with sections involving kinetic shifts accompanied by metric ambiguity, as well as passages of great delicacy. It concludes with a very mournful, spacious coda. The Mazurka No. 3, Op. 66 is once again more musically adventurous than its predecessor. There is much less in it that is overtly “mazurka-like”, and its opening melody presents very fluid hemiolas from the outset, immediately projecting itself as more of a character piece than a “concert dance” work. There is, once again, a great deal of ingenious musical contrast present in the work, leading to a fragile and poignant coda.

The Menuet et valse, Op. 56, in F major (1872), is a perfect symbol of Saint-Saëns’ almost equal fervour for musical idioms from both his present and the past. It may as well be the only work of any significance inhabited by both dances. Relatively large in scale for this genre, it opens with a minuet that, at least initially, would not be out of place in a work from the Baroque era, except for the presence of larger sonorities than one is likely to find from that time (Saint-Saëns actually recasts a good deal of material from some of Handel’s minuets here.) Imitative episodes and shifts of rhythmic speed in contrasting material push the work further away from a “pure” minuet, along with some chromaticism in its “B” section, and more virtuosic writing as it seemingly is about to conclude. Instead of providing us with a final cadence, we are treated to a segue, with arpeggiations in watery textures and cascading passagework, and an accelerando, which finally arrives at the valse propre, in A major, a chromatic 3rd’s distance from the key of the minuet. The waltz proper is much more expansive than the minuet, with numerous contrasting episodes, and some quite formidable virtuosic passages. Then the “waltz idea” itself starts to become more abstract, with a lyrical, pensive passage in F sharp minor, followed by a modulation a tritone away, to a chromatic limpid section in C major (then moving to E major), which builds towards a brief but massive climax (and a brief key signature change to C major), leading to a resonant and triumphant return of the main waltz theme in its home key of A major. This builds to an even more gigantic climax on a dominant harmony, followed by a pause, and then in a very high register, delicate strains of the waltz. This then moves towards the transitional material that followed the minuet, but this time, it leads us back to the 18th century, and the minuet itself, which concludes the work. Thus, the minuet “wins” in the end, via one of Saint-Saëns’ most marvellous works, containing quite a few other symmetries in addition to the ones I pointed out above.

The ensuing phase of my programme presents Saint-Saëns’ “character waltzes” (as I like to call them.) All have descriptive titles projecting a mood or sentiment, except for the Valse canariote, Op. 88 (1890). A paean in part to the composer’s love of Spain’s Canary Islands (and Las Palmas in particular), the opening is actually in common time, presenting a repeated 8-note melody (4 repeated notes and 4 descending scale notes), with the words “O Canaria! Gran Canaria!” written above them. The waltz arrives quickly after this brief introduction, and initially presents itself as an embellished variation of the introduction’s theme, now in triple metre, of course. Numerous highly contrasting episodes follow, and this particular waltz moves through a greater quantity of key centres than any of his other works in this genre: A minor, C major, A major, F major, E major, E flat major, B major, G major, and then finally A major. The work can also be classified as a kind of hybrid dance genre, in that he is also paying idiomatic tribute to the Canarie, a dance popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, cast in a very quick triple metre.

The Valse mignonne, Op. 104 (1896) is, as the title might suggest, light, ethereal, and often quite delicately textured. Two sections in the work’s centre are particularly effective; the first negates prominence of downbeats via much legato syncopation in the right hand, followed by falling chromatic sequences in duple subdivisions, and the second unexpectedly introduces fanfare-like repeated notes and arpeggiations. The Valse nonchalante, Op. 110 (1898) may be the most affecting, and musically prescient of Saint-Saëns’ waltzes. As the title suggests, melancholy, pensiveness, poignance and even a bit of euphoria hiding behind a thin façade seems to constitute the affective agenda. The opening arching theme is initially tentative, but becomes freer and more agile soon enough. The most striking section, and one of Saint-Saëns’ most original and strongly proto-impressionistic passages in any of his piano works, contains a slow descending melody followed by rising pitches subdivided into even units of 4 beats within the ¾ bars, and arpeggiations obviously intended to be distant and subliminal, as the composer wrote them with small noteheads. At its conclusion, after a pedal—one delicate arpeggio on the tonic covering a good deal of range, Saint-Saëns has the pianist depress the keys of a small number of these notes silently, followed by lifting of the damper pedal—one of the earliest uses of this kind of effect, which later became more widely used by composers such as Ravel.

The Valse langoureuse, Op. 120 (1903), is somewhat similar to the Valse mignonne in scale and intention. Its light and disarming opening section builds eventually to material of greater resonance than one finds in the Valse mignonne, though. Written in E major, some of the most effective material is in its centre, with modulations to C major and then B major, the latter introduced by a particularly deft change of colour. Finally, the Valse gaie, Op. 139 (1913), Saint-Saëns’ final waltz for solo piano, is the grandest in scope, breadth and virtuosity of these waltzes. Opening almost like a crazed Charleston, with quick dotted rhythms in parallel 3rds, the piece travels through numerous contrasting sections, almost all of which are quite difficult, and suffused with an impressively potent joie de vivre for a composer who was almost 80 years old at its time of composition.

Saint-Saëns’ “souvenirs” are essentially fantasias on musical materials and cultural evocations of particular corners of the world that inspired him. Although Une nuit à Lisbonne, Op. 63 (1880) doesn’t contain the word “souvenir” in its title, its spirit seems in line with the two works that follow on my programme. Subtitled “Barcarolle”, the gently rollicking compound metre and buoyant texture associated with this idiom is omnipresent. It is also essentially a “Nocturne”, but without any cadenza-like material whatsoever, fixed as it is in maintaining its barcarollelike mood. There is much more variety, and virtuosity, contained within the two Souvenirs. Souvenir d’Italie, Op. 80 (1877) opens with a free cadenza based on the first 4 notes of the ensuing main theme, initially hypnotically impressionistic, and then cascading up and down the keyboard via exuberant figurations. The main theme itself projects the mood of a folk melody, accompanied by mellifluous piano textures in triplets and sextuplets. A transition introducing a polyrhythm of 8 against 3 allows the sequences of 8 to “win”, which brings us to an Allegro giocoso extended variation based on a sequence of the main theme. This builds in virtuosity, but then dissipates back into the main theme, with the opening cadenza material returning to provide a conclusion. The Souvenir d’Ismaïlia, Op. 100 (1895) contains a good deal of thematic elements and idiomatic suggestions from Egyptian music, as well as some of the most difficult virtuoso writing in any of Saint-Saëns’ piano works. The opening, largely lyrical thematic material evokes the Egyptian landscape as Saint-Saëns saw and heard it, with Phrygian and suggestive melismatic elements. The central Allegro vivo section starts relatively unassumingly, conveying the spirit of dance, and growing evermore breathlessly brilliant, only briefly allowing a few lyrical phrases onto its path, followed by a relentlessly resonant drive to the finish.

Geoffrey Burleson

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