Hyperion Records

Piano Concerto No 1 in D major, Op 17
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Saint-Saëns’s First Piano Concerto, composed in 1858, was the earliest work in this form by a major French composer. (His serious intentions regarding concerto form were underlined by the appearance of his first two violin concertos in 1858/9.) Saint-Saëns recalled at the end of his life that this piano concerto had been inspired by the Fontainebleau Forest, where he used to picnic with friends. The concerto is a delightful but sadly neglected work, its outer movements imbued with unclouded optimism and youthful vigour. It begins arrestingly with antiphonal horn calls. Both this rising theme and the woodwind melody heard soon afterwards are incorporated into the main body of the movement (‘Allegro assai’), but perhaps the most attractive idea is that which is introduced by the violins with triplet accompaniment in the piano.

In the strikingly original second movement, in which the accompaniment is greatly reduced to strings, clarinet and bassoon, Saint-Saëns creates a haunting and rather improvisatory atmosphere with typical economy of means. In the cadenza-like solo passages (often notated without bar-lines), the wonderfully fluid, almost impressionistic writing, marked ‘rapido e delicato’, seems to anticipate Ravel by a good fifty years. Towards the end of the exuberant finale, the opening theme of which is shared between piano and orchestra, the very first two melodic ideas in the work are recalled, now transformed in keeping with the irrepressible mood.

from notes by Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2001

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