Sunday, March 15, 2020

Saint-Saëns - Piano Concerto No. 5 'Egyptian'

Camille Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy composing his first piece when 4 years old. At his first public recital at the age of 10 years old, he played Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 15, along with other pieces by Bach, Handel, Hummel and others. For an encore he offered to play any of the 32 Beethoven sonatas from memory. His precociousness did not end with music; for he learned how to read and write by the time he was three. He also studied and wrote about geology, acoustics, archeology, botany and many other scientific subjects as well as history.

 He once said of himself, "I produce music the way an apple tree produces apples." He was one of the most naturally gifted musicians that ever lived, and his seemingly easy facility for composing lead some to criticize his lack of feeling in some of his compositions. There is a natural virtuosity to a lot of his music, whether it is as lacking in emotion as some contend is a matter of taste.

 He wrote the 5th piano Concerto to commemorate his 50th anniversary of his debut in 1846. Saint-Saëns practiced diligently throughout his life to keep his keyboard technique in excellent condition, and remained a virtuoso on the piano and organ his entire life. He was the soloist in the premiere of the work on May 6, 1896.

 Allegro animato - Soft orchestral chords in the woodwinds with pizzicato accompaniment from the strings open the concerto, with the piano entering shortly after with the first theme. The strings take up the theme as the soloist plays a counter melody in the style of the pizzicato accompaniment. There was a 20-year span between the composition of Saint-Saëns’ 4th piano concerto and the 5th, but his elegance of expression and virtuosity remained intact as the piano ripples with scales and arpeggios as the first theme returns and is developed. The music works up to the transition to the second main theme, melancholy music that stands in contrast to the first theme.

 These two themes trade off appearances in the development section, with frequent changes of key. The first theme becomes more aggressive as it appears, while the second theme retains much of its melancholy mood. The first theme seems to reappear to begin the recapitulation, as the strings state it and the soloist plays scales and gentle figures. But is it the recapitulation, or is the development section continuing? Saint-Saëns doesn’t allow a formal return to the opening music, but melds the two themes into a continuing development until a coda appears that gives one more transfiguration of the second theme, and the initial theme then leads to a quiet ending of the movement.

 Andante - The opening of this movement, traditionally the slow section of a piano concerto, breaks with convention as the movement begins with a loud chord by the orchestra, with ensuing rhythmic motives played by the strings that are underpinned by chords from the brass. The piano plays exotic runs over this accompaniment until the piano joins with the woodwinds to move to a slower section dominated by the piano and strings. The soloist plays a simple melody in the extreme treble range of the keyboard that leads to a section labeled quasi recitativo.

 A flute joins in as the piano in gentle runs up and down the keyboard. The 1st violins and cellos gently take up the theme to an accompaniment by the other strings and the piano, with the section played at a whispering pianissimo. A Nubian boat song that the composer heard on his African trips is quoted as the section winds its way through this and other exotic tunes.

 The piano and strings combine in imitation of frogs, crickets, and other creatures heard during the hot and humid nights in Egypt, the 2nd violins and violas play sul ponticello very gently while the piano plays repeated notes in each hand that are labeled quasi cadenza.

 The piano plays in the extreme treble once again, after which gentle runs up the keyboard bring the movement back to where it started with the rhythmic violins answered by the soloist. The music ends with mysterious tremolos played by the strings as the piano slowly makes its way to the top of the keyboard and quietly brings one of Saint-Saëns most imaginative pieces of music to a close.

 Molto allegro - The shortest movement of the concerto begins with the piano rumbling deep in the bass, until the exuberant first theme rushes to the forefront. The piano goes up and down the keyboard while the orchestra supports it in the background. A second mellower theme emerges, and is passed from soloist to orchestra. Saint-Saëns again shows his virtuosity as a soloist in the rapid figures heard in the piano.

 The first theme returns (along with the rumbling in the bass) and is dramatically developed. Both themes return after a shortened development section, and the concerto ends with the entire orchestra playing a fortissimo coda.


  1. The Saint-Saens Fifth Piano concerto is an absolutely beautiful work and it is amazing that it is not played more often in the concert hall. This was a superb performance, with everyone fully involved with illuminating this gorgeous score. Certainly Saint-Saens Fifth Piano Concerto would be a welcome replacement for the overplayed Rachmaninoff Third or even the Tchaikovsky First. Thank you for posting this fine performance of a too rarely heard masterpiece.

  2. Yes, I agree. This gorgeous concerto should be played more often. Reality calls for more Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff they are more commercially attractive.
    I love Saint-Saëns. Norberto de Elizalde