Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103 "Egyptian"
Related Artists/CompaniesCamillle Saint-Saëns
National Symphony Orchestra: Krzysztof Urbanski, conductor / Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, plays MacMillan & Saint-Saëns - Jun. 20 - 22, 2013
The NSO, conducted by Krzysztof Urbanski, alternates between programs featuring concerti by Macmillan and Saint-Saëns, both with celebrated pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who plays with "classical refinement and cool beauty" (New York Times).
About the WorkSaint-Saëns was a man of unlimited interests and talents, which were by no means confined to the realm of music. He mastered several languages, wrote poetry, published essays on philosophy, archeology, astronomy and mathematics. As a musician, he was one of a huge number of younger artists who received encouragement and support from Franz Liszt, and one of the few who could collaborate with him as an equal. Like Liszt, he was child prodigy who grew to command widespread respect throughout his long life, not only as a composer, but as an editor of early music and activist for the music of his colleagues—and in particular as one of the most admired pianists of his time. Hector Berlioz, another senior musician who recognized Saint-Saëns’s creative gifts early on, was equally enthusiastic in his admiration for him as "an absolutely shattering master pianist." He earned special regard for his performances of Mozart and Beethoven, and for his elaborate concertos for their cadenzas. All five of his own piano concertos, which span a period of nearly four decades, were written for and introduced by himself; each has its own distinctive character, with a format individually designed to suit it.
The last of those five concertos, composed nearly twenty years after No. 4, was introduced by the sixty-year-old Saint-Saëns in a concert in Paris on June 3, 1896, that marked the fiftieth anniversary of his public début as a pianist. In addition to his other interests, he was an enthusiastic traveler. Such works as his orchestral Suite algérienne and the fantasy for piano and orchestra called Africa are impressions of places he found especially fascinating. His final piano concerto is known as his "Egyptian" Concerto, not only because he composed it at Luxor but because he made use of actual Egyptian and Arabian themes in it.
A delicately exotic feeling is evoked at the outset and enhanced by filigree figures which ornament much of the first movement, both of whose principal themes are lyrical and spontaneous in mood—though there are moments of serious polyphonic dialogue. In the development section Saint-Saëns cites a portion of the famous aria "Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix," from his opera Samson et Dalila. Despite his renown as a master of the keyboard, and the occasion on which this work was introduced, this opening movement is symphonically organized, and there is no provision for a cadenza.
The Andante is a little Egyptian/Arabian fantasy, based in part on a Nubian song Saint-Saëns heard during a cruise on the Nile. He took it down on his shirt cuff, in fact, since he had not come prepared for collecting folk music. Its contours are very much in accord with those of many of his own voluptuous themes, and there are also intimations of points farther east, including some gamelan effects on the piano, a gong for atmosphere, and subtle chips of chinoiserie. It is even possible to hear echoes of an Oriental bazaar in the deliciously swaggering finale, which bears a certain kinship to the delightful overture Saint-Saëns composed for his brief opera La Princesse jaune, composed in 1872.
In its vigor and its charm, its wit and urbanity, its feeling for exoticism and its sheer virtuosity, this enchanting work constitutes a splendid valediction for the cycle of concertos from the remarkable musical craftsman of whom his younger compatriot Romain Rolland wrote,
He is tormented by no passions, and nothing disturbs the lucidity of his mind; he brings into the midst of our present restlessness something of the sweetness and clarity of past periods, something that seems like fragments of a vanished world.