Saint-Saëns 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-Saëns 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 – the ‘Egyptian’ – 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 composer’s 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 composer’s 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-Saëns’s 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 composer’s 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 sun’s rays on a fountain.
Saint-Saëns remarked that the spirited finale expressed ‘the joy of a sea-crossing, a joy that not everyone shares’. It includes simple pictorialism such as imitation of the thudding ship’s engines in the opening bars, while the second main idea typifies Saint-Saëns’s tendency to rhythmic obsessiveness. The composer adapted this movement as the final piece (‘Toccata’) from his Second Book of Piano Studies, Opus 111, completed in 1899.
from notes by Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2001