Despite Saint-Saëns being somewhat of an innovator early in his career (he introduced the symphonic poem to France), his aesthetic sense also was evident in his habit of composing music in the traditional forms such as the symphony and concerto. His piano concertos are elegantly written works that make virtuosic demands of the soloist, but always in service to musical expression.
Saint-Saëns' 5 piano concertos are works that span a 40-year period and the piano parts show how well Saint-Saëns maintained his virtuoso technique over the years. His most popular piano concerto is Number 2 In G Minor, with occasional performances of No. 4 In C Minor and No. 5 In F Major. Concertos No. 1 and 3 are the least played, with No. 3 being considered by some as his weakest effort out of the five. When the work was premiered in 1869 it was not well received. It is in three movements:
I. Moderato assai - The soloist begins the movement with quiet arpeggios and after two bars a solo horn plays a fragment of a theme while the piano continues arpeggiating. The fragment is passed through different instruments and combinations as the piano arpeggios grow in volume until the fragment of the theme is taken up by the soloist and becomes the first theme of the sonata form movement. The orchestra repeats part of the theme and a short development section is played along with a different motive. The second theme appears in the solo piano and directly after it Saint-Saëns places a cadenza for the soloist. The development section follows the cadenza, which also has an extended part for the soloist alone. A flute signals the beginning of the recapitulation. After a coda that has an impressive piano part, the first movement ends in E-flat major.
II. Andante - The second movement key signature is E major, but in the beginning of it Saint-Saëns does some tonal wandering as the strings slowly move towards a theme, perhaps one of the reasons the concerto did not have a successful premiere. After the strings have their say, the piano enters with a magically simple theme in left hand octaves:
The low strings accompany this theme as it slowly wends its way through the section until a variant of the first theme is played by the oboe. The strings and piano have a tender dialog through the rest of the short movement until it leads without a break to the finale.
III. Allegro non troppo - The third movement brings back the home key of E-flat major as the orchestra hints at a theme that after a few measures is brought in by the soloist. This movement is full of pianistic difficulties as the robust theme returns throughout the movement. There is a short fugal section a little over half way through the movement. An exuberant coda brings this fine concerto to a close