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Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Camillle Saint-Saëns
© Richard Freed
Saint-Saëns composed his Concerto in G minor in the spring of 1868, just in time for its first performance, given in Paris on May 13 of that year, with the composer himself at the piano and Anton Rubinstein conducting. In the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work, on February 19, 1933, Mischa Levitzki was the soloist and Hans Kindler conducted; in the most recent ones, on November 2, 3 and 4, 2000, the soloist was Joyce Yang and the conductor was Takao Kanayama.

In addition to the solo piano, the score specifies pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, with timpani and strings. Duration, 24 minutes.
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Saint-Saëns lived long enough to know Berlioz, dance with Tchaikovsky in a little ballet they created together, and walk out on the premiere of The Rite of Spring, and he was remarkably active in various literary endeavors, not all of them related to music. He published a book of poems and some papers on scientific subjects, he wrote several comic plays. In the realm of music, he was an activist for contemporary French music, an effective pedagogue and an admired pianist and organist as well as an influential composer. He wrote all five of his piano concertos for himself and introduced them all, over a period of nearly forty years, but he did not limit his keyboard performances to his own works. He played all the Mozart concertos, and provided them with cadenzas. Berlioz described him as "an absolutely shattering master pianist."

Two of his senior colleagues of whom that could be said happened to be involved in the launching of the present work, which remains the most frequently performed of his piano concertos, and the earliest of all his works to take and hold a place in the international repertory. One of those other musicians was the famous Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein, who was also active as a composer and conductor. Saint-Saëns helped to arrange the first Paris concerts conducted by Rubinstein, in the spring of 1868, and when the two found that they would have to wait three weeks for an open date at the Salle Pleyel he volunteered to compose a new concerto for the occasion and play the solo part himself. He brought it off in time, but only one part of the work, the scherzo, was really successful at the premiere. Saint-Saëns blamed himself, for not having time to master the score, but Franz Liszt, who was present, recognized the originality and brilliance of the work, and roundly congratulated his young colleague.

There could have been no more meaningful approbation, for Liszt was not only Saint-Saëns's idol, but everyone's. The Concerto soon became a great favorite with pianists and their audiences alike, despite its shaky beginning, and Saint-Saëns himself became one of the numerous younger musicians who benefited from Liszt's direct encouragement. As Liszt was credited with the "invention" of the symphonic poem, Saint-Saëns composed works in that established the form among French musicians. In 1877, after the Paris Opéra turned down his Samson et Dalila, Liszt conducted that work's premiere in Weimar. Nine years later, it was to Liszt that Saint-Saëns dedicated his final symphony, the majestic work which, together the one César Franck produced a few years later, initiated the late flowering of the French symphony, a development to which only Berlioz had made significant earlier contributions. As Liszt died at about the time of that work's premiere in London, the score was published with a dedication reading, "To the memory of Franz Liszt."

The Second Concerto might be regarded as a different kind of tribute to Liszt, one that reflects the senior musician's influence rather more directly, while at the same time showing a sense of individuality--a quality Liszt always insisted upon, in his pupils as well as himself. The form, as in Liszt's own concertos, is unusual for its time. The first movement opens with a cadenza and has only minimal participation by the orchestra, by way of punctuating or marking off various sections as they succeed one another, in this sense reminiscent of the Italian Baroque concertos (a field of special interest to Saint-Saëns) with their alternation of solo and tutti passages in place of any substantive dialogue. It is definitely the pianist's show, a forthright and effective showcase for those who can meet its demands.

There is no "slow movement" where one might have been expected. Having begun with an elaborate Andante sostenuto, the Concerto has for its middle movement a quicksilver Allegro scherzando. Its opening with drumbeats leads quickly to a mischievously playful theme stated first by the piano and then taken up by the winds; this is contrasted with a broadly expansive lyric theme which the piano shares with the strings, the soloist echoing the drumbeat figure here and there as the two themes alternate.

The finale, a glittering Presto, outdoes the scherzo in terms of sheer drive. The orchestra is a full partner in this grand tarantella, which brings the work to an exhilarating conclusion.

Following the Paris premiere, Rubinstein returned the favor in a subsequent concert by playing the solo part in one of his own concertos, with Saint-Saëns conducting. A little more than ten years later the American composer Edward MacDowell, also a gifted pianist, introduced his own brilliant Second Concerto, in D minor, apparently based on the pattern Saint-Saëns provided in the present work.