Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2

Reflection

Being a big fan of French music, I am very happy to have two pieces by French composers on tonight’s program. Gabriel Fauré is not as well known outside of France as his older colleague Camille Saint-Saëns, but his music definitely deserves to be performed much more often, with its beautiful tunes and harmonies, touching moments and abundance of orchestral colour.

In Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2, listeners can hear the neoclassical style in the Bach-style passages of the monumental first movement, and can also be suprised by the unusually jolly, humouristic and witty Finale. The composer and pianist Zygmunt Stojowski even called this concerto “From Bach to Offenbach”!

After the premiere of his Symphony in C minor, Edvard Grieg wrote down on the score that it should be never performed again! Norwegians respected his wish for 113 years but finally, after much consideration, and some disputes, this charming music was performed again and continues to be played. Maybe it will be the first time you hear it, but I believe it won’t be your last!

Reflection

For me, Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No. 2 is a real journey. In fact, we traverse dramatically different, even opposite, universes in the three movements. From Bach to Offenbach conveys this notion of a multifaceted journey very well. The highly lyrical first movement is an expression of late Romanticism. The second movement is as effervescent as a glass of champagne. And the final movement, a real whirlwind, a fantastic ride (wonderfully captured in this quasi-perpetual movement in triplets), is quite dizzying. There’s a sense of shared jubilation that pervades both the musicians and the audience!

And all these universes are infused with elegance “à la française.” A delight!


The NAC Orchestra has performed the Pelléas et Mélisande Suite many times before: the first time in 1977 with Leonard Slatkin conducting, and most recently, in 2017 with David Zinman on the podium.

Mario Bernardi led the NAC Orchestra in their first performance of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2, given in 1973 with Jean-Paul Sevilla at the piano. The ensemble gave their most recent interpretation of this work in 2013 with Pinchas Zukerman conducting and Inon Barnatan as soloist.

The NAC Orchestra is performing Grieg’s Symphony in C minor for the first time.


Fauré

Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande

Born in Pamiers, France May 12, 1845
Died in Paris, November 4, 1924

Maurice Maeterlinck’s finely-wrought Symbolist drama, Pelléas et Mélisande, set in the mists of time, was first performed in Paris on May 17, 1893. In the audience that night was Claude Debussy, who was struck by the play’s musical possibilities, and almost immediately began work on his opera set to Maeterlinck’s text. “An opera in search of a composer” was Edward Lockspeiser’s description of the play.

Five years later, the famous actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell commissioned Fauré to write some incidental music for a production in London in English. (Debussy had been asked but declined.) Fauré had little time to fulfill this commission – less than six weeks. But he managed, drawing upon “earlier” pieces, and by assigning orchestration to a Conservatoire pupil, Charles Koechlin. The complete set of incidental music consisted of nine separate pieces. Although Debussy’s opera was finished at this time, it was not performed until 1902, leaving Fauré’s score as the first music inspired by Maeterlinck’s drama to be heard in public.

Fauré’s delicate, pastel-coloured music admirably evokes the veiled atmosphere and mood of Maeterlinck’s play, a world of “people with strange names [who] move like ghosts across the stage, mysterious to us and not less mysterious to one another” (Arthur Symons). Fauré captures the flavour of this world perfectly, with music that is pensive and lyrical. Several ideas are heard in the Suite, including Golaud (Mélisande’s first lover), announced by a distant horn call in the Prélude, those associated with spinning (La Fileuse); the lovers’ one moment of joy (Sicilienne); the doomed Mélisande.

– Program notes by Robert Markow

Saint-Saëns

Piano Concerto No. 2

Born in Paris, October 9, 1835
Died in Algiers, December 16, 1921

The Second Piano Concerto is Saint‑Saëns’ earliest work still in the active repertoire. It serves as a perfect example of the composer’s polish, neat formal proportions, clarity of texture and classic elegance of style. The story of how the work came to be written is an interesting one. Saint‑Saëns and the pianist-composer Anton Rubinstein had met in 1858 and had been close friends ever since, often playing piano duets together and sometimes performing in concert with Saint‑Saëns on the podium and Rubinstein at the piano. One day in 1868, Rubinstein commented that for all his appearances in Paris as a soloist, he had never conducted there. So he and Saint‑Saëns exchanged hats, so to speak, and just three weeks later, on December 13, Rubinstein mounted the podium at the Salle Pleyel to conduct the concerto Saint‑Saëns had written in the interim (it took just 17 days!).

The Concerto opens with an elaborate piano solo – a free-form, fantasia-like passage that shows Saint‑Saëns’ debt to Bach’s organ music. After the initial orchestral statement, the piano presents a lyrical theme that Saint‑Saëns lifted from a Tantum ergo for voice and organ by a former pupil of his, Gabriel Fauré. The pianist Alfred Cortot said that Fauré, “with absolute sincerity, congratulated himself on the honour his master had done him by using his theme.” Glittering cascades of notes, thundering octaves, and dazzling passage work are used to great effect. In a surprise gesture, the opening material returns at the end of the movement, but now in hushed, subdued tones with “a poetic quality of something remembered from the depths of the past.”

The scherzo trips along gaily, light as a feather in the best tradition of Mendelssohn, except for the jaunty second theme that brings images of dancing horses to some minds.

The third movement employs the furious tarantella rhythm in a whirlwind tour de force. Everything points to a master craftsman. To quote Cortot again, “the music displays neat and even brilliant rhythms, more intelligence than sensibility, more verve than feelings.” The concerto ends in a blaze of fiery virtuosity.

– Program notes by Robert Markow

Grieg

Symphony in C minor

Born in Bergen, June 15, 1843
Died in Bergen, September 4, 1907

Edvard Grieg is one of the best-known names in classical music, but his only symphony is one of the least-known in the repertoire of those by famous composers. It is a full-length (30 minutes-plus), four-movement, richly melodic, coherent work in conventional format. “In the C minor symphony we are face to face with a go-ahead young man set on a successful international career,” wrote the Norwegian musicologist Finn Benestad. So why don’t we hear it more often?

One reason is that Grieg himself suppressed it, and as a result it has remained on the outer fringes of the repertoire. Grieg was just twenty when he wrote his symphony. Following studies in Leipzig from 1858 to 1862 (Norway had no advanced music schools at the time), Grieg returned briefly to his natal city of Bergen, then went to Copenhagen in search of musical stimulus and employment. There he met Denmark’s most famous composer of the nineteenth century, Niels Gade (another Scandinavian whose eight symphonies are rarely heard today), who encouraged him to write a symphony. Grieg took Gade literally, and produced what we have today. It was his first completed orchestral work. When he showed it to Gade in May 1864, it won the Dane’s high approval, and on June 4 the symphony, minus its first movement, was performed at the Tivoli Gardens. The symphony in whole or in part, was subsequently performed in Copenhagen, Christiania (present-day Oslo) and Bergen. Grieg arranged the two inner movements for piano four hands and had them published as Two Symphonic Pieces, Op. 14.

But then Grieg had second thoughts about the worth of his symphony. He wrote to his publisher that it belonged “to a bygone Schumann period” of his life, and on the score’s title page he inscribed the words “Must never be performed.” After his death it became the property of the Bergen Public Library, where it was available for consultation but not for performance. It took much persuasion and legal wrangling before the library allowed Grieg’s admonition to be overturned. The symphony was finally heard again on May 30, 1981, played by the Bergen Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra Grieg himself had conducted between 1880 to 1882.

Another reason we don’t hear this symphony very often might be that we normally think of Grieg as a miniaturist rather than in terms of large-scale, multi-movement works. His only compositions  of this latter type are a piano concerto, a string quartet, a cello sonata, a piano sonata, and three violin sonatas; of these, only the concerto is heard with any regularity. There have been at least eight recordings of the symphony over the past almost 40 years, but few live performances. Tonight’s audience is therefore privileged to hear one of those rare events.

The symphony opens with a series of sharply articulated chords, then launches into the sweeping first theme stated initially in the violas and clarinets (an unusual but effective choice of instruments for this role). The triplet figure embedded in this theme will have far-reaching consequences throughout the movement. The contrasting second theme is a long-breathed, lyrical idea presented first by violins and cellos in octaves, then repeated by clarinet and bassoon. The development section of this standard sonata-form movement makes much use of the aforementioned triplet figure.

The slow movement, in A-flat major, is the symphony’s emotional core, its dreamy romanticism and  orchestral writing highly reminiscent of Schumann (a composer Grieg surely heard in Leipzig). It is laid out in a simple rondo form: a principal theme alternating with two contrasting ideas (ABACA).

The third movement is marked Intermezzo but it is a scherzo in all but name. Here, for the first and only time in the symphony, we hear strong suggestions of the Norwegian folkdance element that was shortly to become such an important element of Grieg’s compositional makeup. The stormy C-minor opening and closing material is contrasted with a gentle, woodwind-dominated central episode.

The joyous finale opens with the fleetness we associate with Mendelssohn (another composer whose music Grieg more than likely encountered in Leipzig), but later its propulsive power sounds more akin to Beethoven. The key is C major, and the astute musical aficionado is by now wondering if Grieg might deliberately have fashioned the entire symphony’s key scheme after Beethoven’s Fifth. There are also fanfares for horns and trumpets, just as Beethoven had done in his finale. The symphony hurtles along to a glorious, triumphant conclusion.

– Program notes by Robert Markow


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