Hyperion Records

Violin Concerto No 3 in B minor, Op 61
Sarasate was the dedicatee of Saint-Saëns’ final violin concerto, written in 1880. In the twenty years that had elapsed since the A major Concerto he had produced four further concertos (Nos 2, 3 and 4 for piano, No 1 for cello). He had discovered, too, the ability to write instantly memorable melodies that is a feature of all his best-known music, and developed a colourful, romantic harmonic style, with modal inflections that cloud the tonality, and often substitutes more remote chords and keys for the ones we expect. When, in the first movement, he brings in the sensuously lyrical second subject, not in the key of G major which he has seemed to prepare, but in the more remote E major, we feel transported to a magical world far removed from the passionate directness of the concerto’s opening pages. This intense B minor mood, which surely offered inspiration for the violin concertos of Elgar and Bartók (No 2), is put into even sharper relief by the gentle barcarolle that forms the second movement, set in the extremely remote key of B flat major, with no attempt to effect a tonal transition. As in the C major Concerto’s Andante, Saint-Saëns delights in relating the solo violin to the contrasting individual voices of the woodwind, establishing an intimate chamber-musical atmosphere. The arpeggio passage near the close where the violin, playing harmonics (Sarasate was particularly fond of them), is joined by the clarinet, creates a strikingly original effect.

The finale begins with another abrupt key-switch, not straight back to B minor but to its close relative, E minor. Like Mendelssohn in his violin concerto, Saint-Saëns prefaces his last movement with an introduction—not meditative as in the earlier work, but a boldly dramatic dialogue in the style of a recitative. The main part of the finale has a bright, march-like character, and far from being the conventional lightweight concerto finale, it’s the most extended, complex movement of the three. There’s a wealth of memorable themes—a passionate subsidiary motif, a broad second subject, and a chorale which appears as quiet contrast but returns near the end in triumphal style to set the scene for a brilliant conclusion. One of the most impressive features of this concerto is the way Saint-Saëns integrates the element of virtuosity. No longer is the music divided neatly into cantabile or brilliant passages; instead, the virtuoso character can appear at any time, to add drama, excitement, or a decorative quality to the music. Certainly, Saint-Saëns ‘knows everything’. In this vivid, spirited work he shows more than technical wizardry. He knows how to enthrall and move us.

from notes by Duncan Druce © 1999

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