Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Saint-Saëns - Piano Concerto No. 4 In C Minor

 Saint-Saëns was the first major French composer to write a piano concerto, and he treats orchestra and piano as equals, with brilliance and originality. He was devoted to forms used in the past, but that did not stop him from experimenting. He revered the modern composers of his younger years while he grew more critical of the next generation as he got older. But for his contemporaries, he was somewhat of an innovator and known for his novelty, all within the French aesthetic of ‘good taste’. 

Of the five piano concertos, No. 2 in G minor is the only one that is solidly in the repertoire, with No. 4 having an occasional performance. Both concertos are innovative in form, with No. 4 being similar in form to Symphony No. 3. Musicologist Daniel M. Fallon has written a paper that goes in depth concerning  the 4th piano concerto and its relation to early sketches for a symphony that was never written. The paper is free to download at the link and is titled:  The Genesis Of Saint-Saëns’ Piano ConcertoNo. 4. The abstract of the paper states:

Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 4 was based on an introduction to an unfinished symphony, which the 19-year-old composer wrote and then abandoned. Nearly every bar of the concerto evolves from this draft, providing a rare opportunity to understand Saint-Saëns' compositional craft.

I. Allegro moderato - Andante - This concerto consists of two main movements, with two distinct sections within each.  The movement begins with a chromatic theme in the strings that is soon taken up by the piano. This theme is traded off by piano and orchestra and builds in brilliance in the piano until the full orchestra repeats the theme forte.  The theme then moves into the woodwinds as the piano and pizzicato strings accompany.  Saint-Saëns shows his feeling for orchestral and pianistic color as it is essentially the same theme repeated throughout the first section, but he avoids monotony with his skill of orchestration. This section comes to a close and a bridge begins that announces the second section of the movement. 

The second section begins in the woodwinds that play a chorale theme with the piano accompanying with rapid scales. This theme is varied for the rest of the movement as the piano part becomes more florid until the music calms and begins a slow transition to the second movement.

II. Allegro vivace -  Andante -  Allegro -  The second movement begins with a return to the material that was used as a bridge for the first and second sections of the first movement. The first section of this movement serves as a scherzo. The first theme of the first movement reappears in the strings as the piano cavorts in triplets. The theme is varied until a new energetic theme appears and alternates with the initial theme. The bridge theme reappears, as the other two themes play off each other. The music flows into the Andante section in a reminiscence of the chorale theme of the first movement that receives a fugal treatment.  The chorale continues and slowly builds in volume and intensity, which leads to the final Allegro section.

This section’s theme is actually the chorale theme played in C major in ¾ time, and it is initially heard in single notes in the right hand of the piano with a pizzicato accompaniment.  The piano and orchestra alternate playing the theme and accompaniment as Saint-Saëns continues keeping the ear of the listener interested in the theme with subtle variations on it.  The piano glitters and combines with the orchestra to bring the concerto to a brilliant close.

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