The reputation of musical conservative still follows Saint-Saëns, but that came about later in his long life when he became increasingly curmudgeonly towards Debussy and other younger composers. In his younger days Saint-Saëns was known as an innovator, with the second concerto being a good example.
The second piano concerto was written at the request of another one of Saint-Saëns' composer acquaintances, the Russian pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, who was in the process of developing his reputation as a conductor. Saint-Saëns wrote the work in three weeks, and the premiere of the concerto happened so soon after completion of the work that Saint-Saëns complained that he had insufficient time to practice the work, as he was the soloist. The concerto got a mixed reception at the premiere, but it went on to become Saint-Saëns most popular work for piano and orchestra and is still in the repertoire. The concerto is in three movements:
I. Andante sustenuto - While Saint-Saëns first concerto kept to a classical model of a piano concerto, the second concerto shows its differences immediately as the soloist plays an extended cadenza in the very beginning of the first movement. The piano continues until the orchestra interrupts the cadenza with two loud chords and a short episode that prepares the way for the hearing of the first theme played by the solo piano. The piano repeats the theme with orchestra accompaniment, after which orchestra and soloist engage in a dramatic dialogue, after which the music becomes more serene as the second theme is presented by piano and orchestra. The second theme expands slowly until it dissolves into a slowly building dramatic section. The piano thunders out octaves and the first theme returns. The soloist introduces new material in another cadenza until material from the opening of the movement returns in hushed tones. The tension and drama change suddenly as the soloist plays forte, the orchestra repeats the loud chords from the beginning, and orchestra and piano join in as the movement ends.
II. Allegro scherzando - In an extreme example of contrast between movements, the second movement begins with a quiet rhythmic figure on the timpani. The soloist and orchestra take turns in a Mendelssohnian scherzo, with the first theme seeing the soloist playing fleet of finger figures with a light and rhythmic accompaniment. The second theme is first played by orchestra while the piano accompanies. The music remains light and delicate while themes come and go, until the woodwinds and timpani enter into a short dialogue based on the rhythmic motive of the opening. Everything winds down to a quiet ending.
III. Presto - Saint-Saëns returns to G minor for the last movement, a tarantella of great speed and passion. The main theme is repeated between episodes of other material, but as with the previous two movement Saint-Saëns made something different of the form. The tarantella eventually takes over as the piano frantically scrambles towards the end of the work with the orchestra running alongside until the thundering chords of the orchestra and running notes of the piano end the work.