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Cello Concerto No 2 in D minor, Op 119
1902; written for Joseph Hollman

'Saint-Saëns: Cello Concertos' (CDA68002)
Saint-Saëns: Cello Concertos
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Movement 1: Allegro moderato e maestoso – Andante sostenuto
Movement 2: Allegro non troppo – Cadenza – Tempo 1 – Molto allegro

Cello Concerto No 2 in D minor, Op 119
The most high-profile Parisian musical event of 1902 was undoubtedly Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, though it was not to the taste of Saint-Saëns who told a friend he was staying in Paris over the summer in order to say nasty things about it. But this was also the year Saint-Saëns wrote his Cello Concerto No 2 in D minor, Op 119, which gives the lie to any idea that he was resting on his laurels. The soloist for whom it was written, Joseph Hollman, was an energetic, muscular player and Saint-Saëns seems here to turn his back on the suave style of the first concerto and of Le cygne (we can find a similar volte-face decades later from Henri Dutilleux, between the predominantly lyrical cello of Tout un monde lointain and the more strident one of Trois strophes sur le nom de SACHER). When, in 1917, Saint-Saëns’s pupil and friend Gabriel Fauré chose the concerto as a Conservatoire test piece, the composer was duly grateful, but admitted ‘it will never be as well known as the first; it’s too difficult’.

This it certainly is, with many solo passages, huge leaps and runs that require two staves to accommodate them, and a large amount of double-stopping. The French premiere of the piece at a Conservatoire concert on 5 February 1905 was the occasion for one critic to come up with the formula ‘bad music well written’ that was to dog the composer’s work for years. The critic Jean Chantavoine even thought he detected a note of satire in the work, and was unimpressed by Hollman’s disordered hair, tempestuous shoulders, furious brow and athletic double-stopping. With the wisdom of hindsight we can see that it is quite simply hard for any soloist to manage this concerto without expending a good deal of physical effort. At the same time, there are also passages of the most exquisite lyricism, notably in the Andante sostenuto that forms the second part of the first movement, where we can only admire the composer’s delicate use of wind instruments, not to deliver solos, but to add discreet colour to a line or a chord. Who else (Ravel perhaps) could have written the miraculous ending of this Andante, using just ascending scales and descending fourths? Wildness sets in with the second movement, not just in rhythm and figuration but in harmony too. The cadenza embraces the traditional recitative that Pelléas was busy destroying and in the process stretches the instrument to its upper limits, before the brief final section returns to a style we can recognize as typical of late nineteenth-century France.

from notes by Roger Nichols © 2014

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