The Third Concerto was composed in 1869, soon after No 2. A constantly engaging, original and fascinating work, it is undeserving of its reputation as the weakest of the five. At its premiere in the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the indeterminate tonality at the beginning of the slow movement caused a fracas among a rowdy element of the audience. The first movement opens with a simple but marvellously effective wash of piano arpeggios, apparently inspired by Alpine waterfalls. Against this background a majestic theme (superficially reminiscent of the opening of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony) is heard, initially shared between horn, clarinet and bassoon. Such a description may well suggest a potent, typically Romantic atmosphere, but actually this opening is informed by Saint-Saëns’s characteristic objectivity of tone. While broadly observing classical sonata-form structure, Saint-Saëns constantly modified its conventions. For instance, his fondness for cadenza-like passages contributes a more flexible and rhapsodic quality. Thus, in the opening movement of the Third Concerto, the inclusion of cadenzas both before and after the animated and inventive development section gives the structure an unorthodox twist.
The slow movement – after the initial instability – creates a poignantly beautiful atmosphere. Its second main theme is a bold striding melody for the soloist’s left hand only, while the central section of the movement is characterised by tenderly poetic piano figuration. Following without a break, the finale begins with an anticipatory orchestral section, before the piano bursts in with a robust, swaggering theme. This movement has tremendous, infectious energy, with exuberant cascades of notes in the solo part. Nevertheless, one contemporary critic, presumably disturbed by the importance of the orchestral contribution, hailed it as signalling ‘the death of virtuosity’!
from notes by Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2001