Camille Saint-SaŽns (1835-1921)
I have known Saint-SaŽns' piano concertos for many years, being originally bowled over as a teenager by No.2, and then exploring all of them in Collard's performances on cassette. The sound quality of these cassettes was poor, and soon afterwards I obtained Pascal Rogť's recordings on CD. Although they made me aware of Saint-SaŽns as an enjoyable romantic composer, I did not revisit these concertos for many years, and so it was with a renewed pleasure that I listened to them again to reconsider their qualities. I find them all well worth listening to, with lovely themes and imaginative moments, all effectively written for piano and orchestra in the romantic manner. France had not apparently produced a significant piano concerto prior to Saint-SaŽns, and he was unusual for a mature romantic composer in producing five (between 1858-96), as well as four shorter works for piano and orchestra. He also wrote three violin concertos and two cello concertos and numerous other concertante works, the most well known being the Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso for violin and orchestra. Saint-SaŽns was an excellent pianist and often played his concertos in concert.
Piano Concerto No.1 in D major, Op.17
The first concerto was completed in 1858 when Saint-SaŽns was 23. It is a bright and energetic work, and very effectively written with sound formal organisation. I used to think this was a rather empty concerto, but after acquainting myself with it again I consider it an excellent work, especially when given a strong and persuasive performance such as Darrť's. Saint-SaŽns' themes can be rather square and self contained, but here they seem fresh and free flowing.
First Movement: Saint-SaŽns, like Mendelssohn, dispenses with the orchestral exposition, but otherwise treats the first movement in classical form. A horn call (a) starts the movement, after which the piano enters with stirring strings and a short melancholy theme is given by wind (b). This leads to (a) played by the wind section which builds up and becomes the main tutti string theme. The piano then comes in to close the theme. The pretty second theme (c) is given, immediately followed by the light and attractive third theme (d). The piano takes it up and (b) returns, lyrically presented and extended by piano. This heralds the development section, which is seamlessly attached.
The development continues with an episode leading to bright passage work. The main horn theme (a) returns and is expanded upon by the piano. The second theme (c) also returns, nicely dramatised, leading to a theme which is in fact an inverted version of (c). This is expanded on in a developmental episode.
The main horn theme (a) returns, ushered gently into the texture as the reprise gets underway. The piano comes in with (b), and the main tutti version of the theme returns very much as it was in the exposition. A slight change of direction prepares for the second and third themes (c&d), which build up to another presentation of (b) on piano. This leads to an extended climax and the conclusion of the movement. The horn call theme (a) returns, which develops and leads to a wonderfully conceived climax and close.
Second Movement: The mysterious opening on low strings with pizzicato accompaniment is joined by the piano in lyrical accompanying phrases. The piano continues with it and the strings extend the piano's final phrase. This leads to two presentations of an arresting chordal passage given by the piano. Brahmsian orchestral phrases then follow, which the piano takes up and continues.
The mysterious string introduction returns with the piano accompanying phrases slightly varied, this time leading straight into the piano's chordal response passage. The piano expands on it, leading to a short cadenza. A unison string passage then leads to the piano's chordal response again, this time in the minor. This sinks down to the bass end of the piano's register and leads to an episode where the piano muses on various trills, alone and then with the orchestra, before the movement finally concludes.
Third Movement: The boisterous main theme (a) is given by piano and orchestra and is continued by orchestra in a tutti workout which is then concluded by the piano. The lyrical second theme (b) enters, but only as teasing phrases which are interrupted by the opening motif of (a). This builds up with a developmental passage consisting of (a) and (b) motifs and a piano climax.
A reprise of the main theme (a) then takes place, continued by the orchestra but cut short to reintroduce the second theme (b). It is again a brief reference only (this time in the wind) which is followed by an episode based on (a) given by piano. What follows is an expanded presentation of the second theme (b) given by the orchestra with a colourful and decorative piano accompaniment. The piano takes up the theme in a strong and bright manner with busy strings, and again presents it fully expanded leading to an orchestral climax and the victorious return of (a) and (b) from the first movement. The concerto then ends in an exciting manner with closing flourishes.
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.22
The second concerto is perhaps Saint-SaŽns' most popular, and quite different in mood from number one. It is much more witty and less classical in spirit, with subtle orchestral writing, particularly for the wind, long flexible melodies and brilliant piano writing similar to Mendelssohn's piano concertos. It was first performed by the composer in 1868, not long after he hurriedly wrote it, and he noted afterwards that he did not have time to practice it. This may account for why the concerto was not well received. The pianist and composer Stojowski, who himself wrote two notable late romantic piano concertos, famously remarked that it "begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach", and the concerto does indeed move from the heavy and sombre style of the first movement to the witty and suave brilliance of the second and third. The concerto is not long, but it is absorbing and excellently conceived with particularly memorable thematic material.
First Movement: A piano cadenza opens the movement with an ominous Baroque-style passage which leads to brilliant piano writing and dark, dramatic chords. This is taken up by the orchestra in a forthright style not far removed from Mozart's Don Giovanni, and dissolves into a plaintive falling oboe line. The main theme, a lyrical and doleful theme, is then given by piano, which leads to a more dramatic dialogue with the orchestra. The music becomes more tranquil, and then the second theme, a sentimental and delicate melody, is presented by piano and orchestra. This theme does not return. Light falling flourishes issue from the piano and the music slowly builds up in a climactic and increasingly dramatic episode with the change in mood well handled. The music becomes stormy, and this leads to thundering piano octaves. This episode essentially constitutes the development, although there is no strong sense of classical form.
This continues into the reprise of the main theme, given by the orchestra while the piano maintains the powerful solo writing. The piano continues with the theme, in the lyrical mood of the exposition, but with more decorative brilliance. This leads to a piano cadenza which starts with a new motif in a ruminating passage before the dramatic dialogue returns, now worked out without the orchestra. It leads to a climax, and is followed by a melancholy theme based on the new cadenza motif, which is later joined by the orchestra. This leads to a return of the opening piano solo, now in a hushed and mysterious mood with sustained orchestral accompaniment, all very lovely and effectively handled. This suddenly climaxes and returns to the mood of the opening with the original orchestral utterances, this time with accompanying piano flourishes, before the movement finally comes to a close.
Second Movement: The mood now completely changes, with a colourful and brilliantly witty scherzo, taking the place of a slow movement. It is, however, similar to scherzos found in other romantic concertos, most notably those by Litolff and Stenhammar. The change is not a jolt but is a natural continuation of the concerto. The timpani get the movement underway with a strong triple time rhythm. The piano enters with the theme, and each phrase alternates with the orchestra. The theme is repeated, and leads without ceremony to the lilting second theme. This suits the concerto well, and naturally leads to some wonderfully delicate and brilliant solo passages.
The main theme returns, moving to the minor. A developmental episode ensues, modulating in a sequence, and eventually leads to references of the second theme which are rather subdued. However the music makes a sudden change in mood, with arresting motivic interplay between the piano and orchestra based on the timpani's opening phrase. This leads to the reprise of the main theme.
The main theme is not repeated this time, but leads straight into the second theme and the piano's delicate continuation on the theme. This fades away and leads to a last reference to theme given by horn and concluded on piano, a nice touch. Falling orchestral phrases are answered by the piano and the timpani and piano asnwer each other in phrases based on the opening. The movement closes in a delicate light hearted manner.
Third Movement: This movement is a frantic Tarantella started by the piano. The main theme is repeated and leads to some brilliant solo passage work and a passage defined by a series of trills. This in turn leads to a climax and a muscular exchange of gestures with the orchestra.
The main theme returns and is developed in a sequential manner, each sequence ending with the familiar trills. The trills then form part of a long episode which sees the piano presenting nothing but trills while the orchestra present a series of hymn-like phrases which quicken towards a climax and some muscular octaves from the piano based on the exchange with the orchestra.
The reprise of the main theme then takes place, very much as it had done at the start of the movement, leading to the glittering solo passage work and the trills passage. This again leads to the muscular exchange, but continues into a dramatic new episode with a sequential series of rising chords. The resulting solo passage work suddenly comes as light relief and is very effective as it dances its way to the strong conclusion of the movement. Saint-SaŽns certainly knew how to close out a concerto.
Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major, Op.29
The third concerto was first performed by Saint-SaŽns at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1869, but it was not well received. It is believed that the audience was disturbed by the harmonic daring of the andante's opening, something that seems difficult to believe today. The concerto is one of Saint-SaŽns' least known, though given an alert performance it comes across as an attractive romantic utterance with plenty of good things in it. The rather banal main theme of the third movement, and the way it suddenly asserts itself after the beautiful slow movement, is perhaps the main let down. The slow movement itself is brilliantly handled, with much imaginative orchestration and wonderfully warm romantic themes, in contrast to the second concerto. The concerto is a return to a more classical formal model, though it is not without its own individual touches, especially in the third movement.
First Movement: The concerto starts quietly, with low rippling piano arpeggios and the main theme (a) slowly unfolding in the orchestra. There is build up of tension and eventually the piano takes it on and delivers a fuller and brighter version of it. This if followed by an orchestral tutti version of the theme before a strident unison bridge phrase (b) is introduced and developed both by the orchestra and then the piano. After the climax comes to a close the piano muses on a new theme (c), and the movement becomes more tranquil. The theme is then given in a lyrical manner by the piano. The soloist has at this point embarked on a long solo section which continues to a lyrical rendition of the main theme (a), and this in turn leads to the introduction of a delicate third theme (d). This is followed by a climax.
The development gets underway straight away with a strong exchange based on the main theme (a), followed by a powerful episode. This eventually gives way to (c) in the orchestra which leads to a dramatic episode with the piano, all nicely achieved. A tranquil mood then returns, with lyrical wind utterances on (c), and the piano then muses on (d) to an accompaniment of trills. This is the last we hear of this theme which was sensible thinking, because it would otherwise outstay its welcome and put the breaks on the movement's conclusion. As we have already seen in the second concerto, Saint-SaŽns liked to keep his reprises moving, and had no problem omitting themes from the exposition.
An effective moment now takes place as a flute presents the main theme (a), which heralds the start of the reprise. This is followed by a tutti on the main theme, very much it was in the exposition. Immediately after this the strident passage (b) returns, again effectively as it was in the exposition, and moves straight into the second theme (c). It is lyrical and brief, and is followed by more references to the main theme combined with (c), as the music strives towards the movement's close. Then the piano returns to (c) in a passionate work out, followed by a climax and yet another return of the main theme before the movement reaches its strong and effective conclusion.
Second Movement: A mysterious falling unison string line with rising wind is answered my equally mysterious piano chords. This is followed by the main theme, a long, warm and richly romantic string melody. It is effectively in two parts, both with important thematic material. The piano enters with the more sombre second theme, a lyrical unison melody against low strings. After a series of falling phrases in the piano part the main theme returns and leads to a very beautiful episode in which the second part of the main theme is given against a highly attractive piano accompaniment. At the end the strings become long and beautifully floating lines.
The piano then gives the reprise of the main theme in full, and this leads to the reprise of the second theme, played by cellos against a piano accompaniment. This includes the falling phrases which close the theme. Finally, and a great touch, the falling line which opened the movement briefly returns. It is now played by wind which gives it a chilly, ethereal quality. However, the mood suddenly changes, with an air of expectancy, as a new motif is introduced which forms the main theme of the third movement. The movements are attached.
Third Movement: The mood suddenly becomes bright and cheerful, with the main theme given in full by the piano. The last phrase includes a three note rhythmic motif (x) which returns later in the movement. After a climax the orchestra give the theme again in a tutti work out which is continued in a dialogue with the piano. This calms down and what seems like the second theme is presented in a lyrical orchestral passage including some attractive piano decoration. However, this does not return, and the second theme proper, a rollicking tune full of high spirits, is given which is again extended by dialogue with the piano, before leading to the main theme reprise. This is prepared with expectant first theme motifs, as at the start of the movement.
A reprise of the main theme takes place, given by piano again. This climaxes and the orchestra give the main theme again in a similar tutti work out as in the exposition, followed by a dramatic exchange. This leads to a development of the (x) motif in an impressive, dramatic, and partly contrapuntal episode. References to the main theme follow in a further episode, after which the second theme returns extended by piano. The closing section now gets underway, in a musical style not unlike Tchaikovsky, in which (x) returns and in fact becomes a perky little theme in its own right. It returns again in the orchestra after further references to the main theme, as the concerto finally reaches its impressive close. Saint-SaŽns' use of form in this movement is worthy of note, as he effectively dispenses with a sandwiched middle development section and incorporates it into the reprise to great dramatic effect.
Piano Concerto No.4 in C minor, Op.44
Saint-SaŽns first premiered the fourth concerto in 1875, and it represents a greater maturity and a change in style from the previous concertos. It is influenced by Liszt, with its thematic transformations and more fluid form which is not confined to the traditional three movement plan. It is conceived in a more symphonic style, while still making the most of the solo piano's role, and represents one of Saint-SaŽns' greatest achievements. I used to think this concerto dragged and was slow to get airborne, and indeed it can in a ponderous performance such as Rogť's, but the dramatic outline is well worked out across its two almost equal sections, with moments that are solemn, lyrical and reflective, as well as those that are glittering, joyful and jubilant. The thematic material is memorable, if rather four-square and predictable in shape, and its transformations are natural rather than contrived. The piano and orchestral writing is imaginative and effective, as the composer had already demonstrated in his earlier concertos. Together with the second concerto, first cello concerto and third violin concerto, it represents one of Saint-SaŽns' most popular concertos.
First Section: The concerto starts in solemn mood, with a steady and sighing main theme. Each phrase is repeated by piano, and the whole theme is repeated in what are in effect two variations. This leads to a falling motif in the piano (x) and then to a mysterious bridge passage of oscillating notes based on the sighing motif of the main theme. This rises in sequence and leads to a hymn-like theme, the second theme, and one that is particularly important, played by the wind with decorative interjections from the piano. Although not immediately obvious, the theme shares a kinship with the main theme. The piano extends it with a theme of its own which is very much based on the second theme. Rich lower strings then give the opening phrase of the second theme, which is again extended by the piano in flowing, lyrical phrases similar to before. A beautifully luminous section then takes place, with piano and some wonderfully imaginative orchestration. This is followed by a decorative falling sequence from piano with orchestra which is effectively an inverted version of the second theme. It doesn't particularly convince as being a natural progression from what came before, attractive though it is, but it does naturally lead to what is effectively the tranquil coda, an extended version for piano of the piano theme against a calm orchestral accompaniment.
Second Section: The second section gets off to a bright start with an extended passage based on the falling motif (x). This leads to the main theme, now given in the section's brighter tempo. This eventually heralds the 3rd theme, a wonderfully joyous and alive inspiration given by the piano and orchestra. It too shares a kinship with the main theme in its rising and then falling pattern. This continues and leads to a final phrase consisting of a contrapuntal musing on the theme. There is then an orchestral tutti on the third theme, which leads to the strong return of (x), given as at the start of the section. The main theme again returns as at the start of the section, before the music dies away with references to (x) given by the piano. There then ensues a more serious string passage (y), which initially builds up in a fugal style, and is based on the piano extension theme. This becomes more intense and heralds the return of the second theme from the wind, followed by the piano extension them. The (y) passage returns and climaxes, eventually leading to a bright brass passage and trills from the piano and orchestra. This then leads to the last big theme of the concerto, the fourth theme which is a bright transformation of the hymn-like second theme. It is given by piano, together with the repeats of each phrase and a more animated final phrase which closes on a climax. An orchestral tutti then takes up the theme, which builds up through further phrases from the fourth theme, leading to a strong passage on brass which is also based on the fourth theme. The fourth theme is then again given in full, with the piano given a decorative accompaniment, which leads to a climax and a very finely handled orchestra tutti on the fourth theme. This ushers in the coda, with a wonderfully fast flowing piano figuration and an imaginative orchestral accompaniment. The excitement and jubilation is excellently built up and concludes with bright, strong and convincing closing gestures.
Piano Concerto No.5 in F major, Op.103
The fifth concerto is a late work, and was first performed in 1896, some twenty years after the fourth, again with the composer as soloist during a Jubilee Concerto to commemorate his debut fifty years before. This is a darker work, and although it has many bright moments, these often become turbulent and stormy, casting longer shadows than the previous concertos, and with less of the joyful exuberance which typified his earlier concertos. Though less popular that the second and fourth concertos, I have always considered this one of my favourites, particularly due to its quite original, highly memorable and dramatic, and richly lyrical middle movement. I always thought the outer movements were weaker, but listening to Darrť in particular has persuaded me that this perhaps isn't the case. Saint-SaŽns shows the same imaginative treatment of the orchestra as he had showed in his previous concertos, but this concerto also displays a greater exploitation of piano sonority and colour, and includes some quite distinctive and original moments, particularly in the middle movement. Indeed, the concertos could almost be programmatic, particularly in the second and third movements. Some of the piano writing, particularly in the first movement, is in a heavy Brahmsian style, and some of the themes have a Brahmsian feel to them as well.
First Movement: The movement starts imaginatively with wind chords and pizzicato strings. The piano then presents the main theme, which is similar in its phrasing to the main theme of Brahms' fourth symphony. It is a perky theme, but tinged with melancholy all the same. This is repeated by the orchestra with an imaginative piano accompaniment. A rhythmic motif (x) then heralds in a bridge theme (y) which are repeated in sequence as the music moves to a strong orchestral tutti based on a new motif (z) which is similar to (x) but is also melodic. Piano and orchestra, particularly the wind take this up and this leads beautifully into the main second theme, a rather sentimental melody which shared a kinship with the main theme. This leads to a climax based on another motif related to the main theme, and (x) then returns into the texture. The piano then gives passionate falling phrases before they die away and (x) reappears, followed by a cheerful close.
An extension of the (x) motif then introduces the development section with a more steely and determined mood change. The main theme returns, now in a darker guise, and this undergoes a powerful development with strong orchestral phrases and dark muscular piano writing reminiscent of Brahms. This launches the piano into a passionate episode in which the main theme is again developed with the orchestra. This falls away in an arresting passage which retunrs to the second theme in a reflective passage that turns out to be the preparation for the Reprise. This is all handled very successfully.
The main theme returns, as does a brighter and more playful mood, with a slight change at the end to prepare for (x) and the bridge theme (y) in a new key. Theme (y) is repeated in the minor, and the orchestral tutti on (z) returns. The reprise of the second theme then takes place, on wind this time, with intricate piano decoration, and this is extended to a close. Motif (x) returns, and so does the passionate falling piano phrases, and this is followed by lyrical falling wind phrases which act as a preparation for the beautifully tranquil coda. The piano muses on the second theme, before the music becomes brighter and leads to a quiet and effective close. Two things are worth noting about the reprise. Firstly, all the main themes are recapitulated in true classical style, unlike the second and third concertos, and the movement doesn't end strongly as the earlier first movements had done. This befits the emotional feeling of the movement, as well as preparing nicely for the second movement.
Second Movement: A striking change of mood now takes place, with a more exotic musical language which belies the predominantly western style of the first movement. A rhythmic string texture starts it off, and the piano responds with powerful octave gestures. A recitative then ensues, with the piano musing for two phrases before leading to a more lyrical third featuring highly effective piano sonorities. Closing gestures and dreamy phrases then lead to the close of the section.
A new section gets underway, with the second main theme. This appears to be based on a Nubian love song which Saints-SaŽns heard being sung by Nile boatmen. It is very lovely, and sensitively and imaginatively handled, and leads to the second part of the theme, which is initially given by oboe. Strings then return with the first part, in a rich and romantic style, and a brighter and more colourful third part is presented, with wind and piano trills and more lyrical passages. This is repeated, and the second part then returns, given by the piano. This leads to a third theme, an evocative and colourful theme from the piano with subtle use of orchestral colour. According to the composer, the accompaniment of this theme is intended to represent chirping crickets and croaking frogs, which adds to the pictorial nature of the music.
This moves to the mood and exotic musical language of the opening section, and an improvisatory style based on the recitative which again displays imaginative and subtle piano as well as orchestral writing. The closing phrases return, and lead to the opening string texture and more improvisatory piano writing which is more lyrical and reflective than before. This is all handled very well, and the movement closes in excellent fashion.
Third Movement: The pictorial nature of the concertos continues in the third movement. Saints-SaŽns remarked that it expressed "the joy of a sea-crossing, a joy that not everyone shares", and this feeling comes across very persuasively in Darrť's recording. The movement starts with rhythmic piano chords (a), which are intended to represent the thudding ship's engines. These rise and give way to a frothy piano theme (b) that then leads to strong accents in a brief exchange with the orchestra. A salty wind swept theme (c) is then given which is not really significant enough to be called a main theme, particularly as it is not fully recapitulated later in the movement. This leads to (b) again and the movement builds up in a dramatic episode with sighing woodwind phases that had essentially already appeared in (b). A new theme (d) is then given, a lyrical and romantic theme which leads straight into another theme (e), a yearning and alert melody which is then repeated in the orchestral wind with piano accompaniment. This continues in an impressive passage which effectively extends and develops the theme, becoming more dramatic as it goes.
This leads to a dramatic and stormy development of the rhythmic piano chords (a) which also sees references to (b) and (c) incorporated into the texture as well as other motifs.
Eventually the storm clouds depart with the reprise of themes (d) and (e), the former altered and used as a return to the mood of the opening, and the latter repeated by the piano before the music builds in passion with a final reference to the third theme, followed by responding piano octaves and a bright orchestral close. After two substantial movements Saints-SaŽns keeps this final movement taught and comparatively brief.
Allegro Appassionato for Piano and Orchestra, Op.70
Rapsodie d'Auvergne for Piano and Orchestra, Op.73
"Wedding Cake", Caprice-Valse for Piano and Strings, Op.76
This short occasional work dates from 1886. It was originally a wedding present for the composer's pianist friend Carolin de Serres. It is a witty and entertaining piece, nicely written for piano and strings.
The piano starts it off with a colourful opening passage (a1) which is reminiscent of Chopin. This leads to a more relaxed second phrase (a2). An innocent string theme then follows (b), before the opening piano theme (a1 and a2) return. The string theme (b) is again presented, with added colour from the piano. This ends with an altered reference to (a1).
The main theme proper is given (c), a jolly and lyrical string theme with piano accompaniment. This again leads to references to (a1) before the close. The second theme is then presented (d), a lyrical and reflective melody which extends into a light and romantic episode joined by strings. This features a passage with numerous ornaments, and leads to a brief rise in tension which soon dissolves.
Reprise of (a1), repeated with strings, and (a2) with strings. The initial string theme (b) is reprised and repeated with piano accompaniment. Its ends with references to (1a) and a brief climax.
The main theme (c) is now given by piano with scurrying stings, ending with references to (a1). There is then a reprise of the second theme, which modulates and is altered from the original. This is cut short as the light extension passage which follows is used to bring the piece to a quick and witty close.
'Africa' Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra, Op.89
© Copyright 2004, Barry Meehan