“From Bach to Offenbach!”, exclaimed a Polish pianist/composer following the premiere of Saint Saens 2nd Piano concerto. Well, I guess the opening page of the concerto with its organ-like polyphonic sonority can bring Bach to mind, and the last movement with its galloping tarantella might sound like an interlude from an Offenbach Operetta. But what’s in between? Are we going to hear all kinds of references?
Saint Saens was an interesting figure. He made his debut at age 11 playing a Mozart concerto as well as a movement from a Beethoven concerto. As an encore he turned to the audience and asked them to name any of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas which he then played by heart. Please... let this NOT give you any ideas for tonight.
Saint Saens gained a reputation as a Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Scientist, Astronomer, Archeologist, Graphic designer and a Cartoonist. His heart, though, was set on Music. He wrote 12 operas, 5 piano concerti, violin concerti, symphonies and a whole lot of miscellaneous works.
The second half of the 19th century was highlighted by two main opposite poles. On the one side there was Johannes Brahms, the last of the great classicists. The man who carried the torch directly from Beethoven as Schumann wrote back in his famous article - "New Paths" 1853. On the other side were Liszt and Wagner, which were referred to as the “music of the future”. It is interesting to see where Saint Saens was influenced or paid homage to the classical era, and where he is turning his aspirations to “the future”… This concerto has three movements, it has an opening theme, a contrasting second theme. These themes will come back at the end and create a certain symmetry, and we also have a cadenza at the end of the first movement. These are all “classical ingredients”. However, the order of the movements is somewhat reversed. We start with a slow movement, then go to a fast movement followed by a faster one. Also, the themes are not being developed or treated as if it is a sonata style. They rather unfold one after another as if telling a story in the nature of Liszt tone-poem.
I also like to ask myself what makes this music French. Can it be the search for different orchestral coloring or sonorities, something that French composers where fascinated by? Or perhaps it is the character of the themes - a combination of elegance, charm, wit and above all nonchalance. This is also very passionate music, but is it passion that one wears on his sleeve like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov, or a deeper more profound passion like Schumann or Brahms? Or maybe it is altogether a bit lighter kind of passion, or shall we say it is more French?
This is music of great ingenuity, creativity and imagination. After all it was written by the same composer who wrote a decade later “The Carnival of the Animals”. Are we going to get a preliminary appearance of some of the animals from the Carnival? Let me give you a hint, one of the “animals” featured in the Carnival is talking to you right now… Movement no. 11 in the Carnival is called “Pianists!”
So, whether it is Bach, or Offenbach, Liszt or Brahms, French music or Carnival of the animals, ladies and gentlemen I am just the messenger. The rest is up to you.
Thank you all for coming and I hope you will enjoy the performance.
|Opening pages of the Concerto|