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Hyperion Records

CDA30018 - Saint-SaŽns: Piano Concertos Nos 2, 4 & 5

Recording details: September 2000
Symphony Hall, Birmingham, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: October 2010
Total duration: 73 minutes 32 seconds

'Marvellous performances, full of joy, vigour and sparkle. The recording is in the demonstration bracket … an easy first choice' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Superlative' (The Independent)

'It is unalloyed pleasure to sit through all five at a sitting … the quite outstanding pianism of Stephen Hough makes this an unmissable addition to anyone remotely interested in the barnstorming, physically exhilarating concertos of the late nineteenth century' (International Record Review)

'Superb' (The Guardian)

'A delightful set that does this underrated composer full credit' (Classic FM Magazine)

Piano Concertos Nos 2, 4 & 5
Andante sostenuto  [10'08]
Presto  [6'09]
Allegro moderato  [11'18]
Allegro vivace  [13'24]
Allegro animato  [10'11]
Molto allegro  [5'49]

Every since the Stephen Hough recording of Saint-Saëns' complete works for piano and orchestra was issued back in 2001 it has garnered spectacular reviews, culminating in it being awarded, by popular vote, Gramophone magazine's unique 'Gold Disc' award, as the greatest 'Record of the Year' of the last thirty years of Gramophone Awards. In this issue, as one of the greatest discs of Hyperion's last thirty years, we have taken the three most popular concertos and coupled them together on a single disc. A definitive recording if ever there was one!

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
As a young man Saint-SaŽns boldly championed progressive and controversial figures such as Schumann, Liszt and Wagner, but it now seems surprising that he himself was also regarded as one of the more innovative composers of his time. Although his Danse Macabre may strike us as no more than an imaginative but innocuous piece of whimsy, an 1875 performance under Pasdeloup drew a barrage of catcalls and booing from the audience. The American composer Arthur Foote recalled in his autobiography that Saint-SaŽnsís music Ďcame to us as a stunning noveltyí, while the critic Georges ServiŤres observed Ďalways something of the fanciful even in his most academic worksí.

However, Saint-SaŽnsís reverence for tradition became more obvious in later years, contrasting with the increasingly radical paths taken by his progressive contemporaries. By now he was regarded as a pillar of national culture Ė the Grand Old Man of French Music Ė and he even witnessed the unveiling of a statue in his honour. The new musical developments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Ė as represented by Debussy and Stravinsky in particular Ė horrified him. His hostility towards these trends, virulently expressed in essays such as ĎAnarchy in Musicí, marked him out for ridicule and contempt, while his own well-mannered, restrained musical style appeared outdated beside such revolutionary works as the Prťlude ŗ líaprŤs-midi díun faune, Le Sacre du Printemps and Pierrot Lunaire. As the composer and critic Alfred Bruneau remarked in a speech at his tomb: ĎTradition captivated him more than innovation. In defence of it, when he felt it threatened, he fought with vivacity, courage and extraordinary violenceí.

Saint-SaŽnsís acerbic writings undoubtedly contributed to his fall from favour, and to the one-sided view of him (which prevails even today) as an old-fashioned and therefore uninteresting composer. If we are to assess fairly the importance of his contribution to nineteenth-century music, we must ignore his more belligerent essays and judge his numerous and diverse compositions on their own terms.

His principal aims were clarity, simplicity, conciseness, balance and freedom from exaggeration, and his success in combining these qualities must be acknowledged along with his versatility. He also typifies the avoidance of the portentous or pretentious which is generally characteristic of French music. As he wrote, in what amounts to his artistic creed: ĎFor me art is form. Expression and passion seduce the amateur Ö for the artist it is different. An artist who is not fully satisfied by elegant lines, harmonious colours and beautiful harmonic progressions has no understanding of artí. He scorned those Ďamateursí with a passion for the obscure and outlandish, who turned up their noses if the instruments of the orchestra did not Ďrun in all directions like poisoned ratsí. Similarly, he wrote on another occasion: ĎArt is intended to create beauty and character. Feeling only comes afterwards, and art can very well do without it. In fact it is very much better off when it doesí. These statements are curiously reminiscent of Stravinskyís oft-quoted belief that music is essentially powerless to express anything. It is ironic that Saint-SaŽnsís music was criticised for its lack of emotion not long before neo-classicism Ė the perfect antidote to the excesses of Romanticism Ė enjoyed such a vogue.

Paradoxically, Saint-SaŽnsís own pioneering achievements were backward-looking, in the sense that he deliberately cultivated the classical forms such as symphony, concerto and sonata at a time when these genres were neglected in France in favour of the far more popular opera and operetta. It is well known that French composers generally have either avoided these classical forms altogether or, where they have attempted them, have been much less successful than their counterparts in the German tradition. Yet it was none other than Saint-SaŽns, with ten concertos to his credit, who made the most extensive contribution to this particular form, not just in France but in the context of nineteenth-century music in general. In spite of considerable opposition (by 1904 the progressive faction in Paris was regularly causing a disturbance during any performance of a concerto in the Concerts Colonne), he was responsible for leading a determined revival of interest in these traditional forms, striking an unashamedly patriotic blow for French music in the face of German dominance. In February 1871, just before the end of hostilities with Prussia, the Sociťtť Nationale de Musique had been founded by Saint-SaŽns, Faurť, Massenet, Duparc and others Ďto aid the production and the popularisation of all serious musical works Ö of French composers; to encourage and bring to light all musical endeavour Ö on condition that there is evidence of high artistic aspiration on the part of the authorí. The damage to French pride following eventual defeat by Prussia acted as an extra spur to restore some cultural and intellectual credibility.

The sheer number of Saint-SaŽnsís symphonies, concertos, sonatas and other chamber works is remarkable enough, but even more significant is the fact that so many of these works are among his finest and most representative achievements.

Saint-SaŽnsís five piano concertos span nearly forty years Ė more than half of his creative life. Remarkably diverse in character, they possess many features which justify his contemporariesí comments regarding his novelty or fancifulness. Although only the Second Concerto has a regular place in the repertoire, each of these works is revealing of the composerís strengths. One does not seek here the profundity, heroic tone or rigorous musical argument which are often found in the greatest concertos by the German Romantics. However, his five piano concertos are constantly diverting and characterful, and they represent an important link in the development of the form. Clearly, the composerís profound love of tradition did not preclude such striking originality of structure as we find in Concertos 2 and 4, or the slow movements of Nos 1 and 5. Indeed it is odd that his contribution to the development of the symphonic poem (amounting to four works) seems to have stimulated far more comment than the Fourth Concerto, a composition of far greater formal interest and idiosyncrasy.

Saint-SaŽnsís approach to the combination of piano and orchestra was to treat the two elements as equals, and the challenge of achieving this balance was one of the aspects of concerto-writing which most appealed to him. Interestingly, even though he had been a brilliant performer from a very early age, extravagant or flamboyant piano-writing for its own sake held little attraction for him. He wrote conspicuously fewer major works for solo piano than any other important composer-pianist in history. While he fully acknowledged the expressive potential of virtuosity (Ďa powerful aid to music, whose range it extends enormouslyí Ö Ďit gives the artist wings to help him escape from the prosaic and commonplaceí Ö Ďthe conquered difficulty is itself a source of beautyí), his piano concertos are far from being exercises in bravura. Even at its most virtuosic, his keyboard-writing is colouristic in effect, and is usually characterised by warmth and elegance rather than brash posturing. While the influence of Liszt is indisputable, the Hungarianís more flamboyant style is tempered through its assimilation into Saint-SaŽnsís own musical language. Mendelssohn is another general influence of perhaps greater importance, as the two composers shared the same facility, urbanity and tastefulness.

Saint-SaŽns composed his Second Piano Concerto in 1868. One of its many original features is the tempo gradation of its three-movement plan Ė ĎAndante sostenutoí, ĎAllegro scherzandoí, ĎPrestoí. The extended solo passage which opens the work Ė an obvious homage to Bach Ė originated in one of the composerís improvising sessions at the organ. (Saint-SaŽns was widely recognised as the greatest organist of his day, and his skill at improvisation Ė an art which he valued highly Ė is clearly related to the abundance of cadenza-like passages in these concertos.) The principal theme of this movement is not actually by Saint-SaŽns, but was borrowed from Faurť, who had decided against using it in an early Tantum ergo. A spirit of Mendelssohnian delicacy hovers over the second movement, while Saint-SaŽnsís individual and mischievous wit is evident in the timpani solos, soon imitated by the piano left hand. A bustling tarantella rhythm propels much of the finale, but the development section is dominated by a trill-obsessed figure from the second subject, while the woodwind intone a chorale-like melody.

The Fourth Piano Concerto is a one-off, a work of remarkable structural unity unparalleled in the context of the nineteenth-century concerto. It ranks among Saint-SaŽnsís finest and most original works. Completed in 1875, the concerto is superficially related to the composerís Third Symphony of 1886, the uniqueness of which he acknowledged in saying ĎWhat I have done I shall never do againí. Both works are constructed in two main sections (subdivided) and demonstrate the skilful transformation of themes. Though much less frequently performed today (at one time it rivalled the popularity of No 2), the concerto is arguably more completely successful than the symphony, as it avoids the latterís grandiose, bombastic tendencies. Artfully constructed, it admirably combines intellectual mastery and popular melodic appeal, while its themes are also remarkably varied in character. The first movement opens with a concise, understated theme divided into two distinct halves. The layout of the theme itself, and that of the variations which follow, epitomises the composerís equal treatment of piano and orchestra.

In the ĎAndanteí section a serene chorale melody, quietly introduced by the woodwind, is subsequently treated in the grandest manner. The reflective conclusion of the first part is preceded by a remarkable passage which is effectively an accompanied cadenza. The second part begins with a scherzo section based on a lively chromatic theme from the first part, and soon the very opening theme of the concerto is playfully recalled as a counter-melody. A new 6/8 theme, splendidly uninhibited in its bounding rhythm, is introduced by the piano, and the triumphant concluding section of the work, following a fugal passage, is dominated by an affirmative triple-time version of the original chorale melody.

Saint-SaŽns loved to escape from the unattractive Paris winters and travel to warmer locations such as Algeria, the Canary Islands or Egypt. (His equal affection for Spain, enhanced by his friendship with the virtuoso violinist Pablo Sarasate, is evident in occasional passages of Spanish influence throughout these concertos.) Nearly twenty years after Opus 44, he completed his Fifth Piano Concerto in Cairo in 1896. While many French composers of this period were under the pervasive influence of Wagner, Saint-SaŽns displayed his independence of mind in this refreshingly sunny work, the orientalism of its central movement again revealing his taste for novelty. The name by which it is occasionally known Ė the ĎEgyptianí Ė is unhelpful, as the central movement (the only one with any direct exotic influence) has at least as much Spanish flavour, while two solo passages with unusual chord-spacings are reminiscent of the sound of gamelan music, casting doubt on the composerís reported lack of enthusiasm for the Javanese music performed at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. Indeed the varied influences in this wonderfully fascinating movement seem to reflect much more generally the composerís love of travel. (Other places which he visited include Russia, South America, the United States, Scandinavia and Indo-China.) However, definite Egyptian influence is heard in a beguiling G major section based on a Nubian love-song which the composer heard being sung by Nile boatmen. A subsequent oriental melody is accompanied by impressions of chirping crickets and croaking frogs (according to the composer), with subtle contributions from clarinet and gong, and again there is some impressionistic figuration which reminds us that Ravel was an admirer of Saint-SaŽnsís piano concertos.

The limpid opening movement exudes a warmth and serenity which suggest more generally the benign influence of the Middle Eastern climate. Its genial simplicity and charm are thoroughly characteristic of the composerís finest music. While the sheer volume of notes in the solo part creates extreme technical demands, the effect is of a sparkling brilliance like the sunís rays on a fountain. Saint-SaŽns remarked that the spirited finale expressed Ďthe joy of a sea-crossing, a joy that not everyone sharesí. It includes simple pictorialism such as imitation of the thudding shipís engines in the opening bars, while the second main idea typifies Saint-SaŽnsís tendency to rhythmic obsessiveness. The composer adapted this movement as the final piece (ĎToccataí) from his Second Book of Piano Studies, Opus 111, completed in 1899.

Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2001

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