Saint-Saëns – Piano Concerto No. 2 in G-minor, op. 22

by Max Derrickson

Camille Saint-Saens (1835 – 1921)

Piano Concerto No. 2 in G-minor, op. 22
1. Andante Sostenuto
2. Allegro scherzando
3. Presto

The prolific Camille Saint-Saens might well be considered the Professor Emeritus of French music.  Over the span of eight and a half decades, he composed over three hundred works in a huge range of genres, performed in hundreds of concerts as pianist and organist, taught countless pupils, championed new composers, helped revive the works of Bach and Handel (composers he adored), and was known in every corner of the music world.  From his very beginnings, music poured forth from the young Camille, who learned the piano at age 2 ½, was composing at three, and became a concert pianist at the age of 10.   As Saint-Saens exclaimed, he produced music as naturally as an apple tree produces fruit.

Through his career as composer, Saint-Saens’ music was inventive (sometimes branded as dangerously innovative), but maintained its classical elegance mixed with Romantic harmonies and energies.
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The Second Piano Concerto, premiered in 1868 with Saint-Saens at the keyboard and his friend Anton Rubinstein conducting, was not initially successful, but has since become his most popular concerto.  Composed and rehearsed in only three weeks, the composer blamed its lackluster premiere on lack of practice.  It did not take long for it to become a perennial favorite, however.  Its novelty shows Saint-Saens in his youthful high-spiritedness, the piece being a bit inorganic in its juxtaposed themes and movements.  A famous witticism of the concerto claimed, “It begins with Bach and ends withOffenbach.”

The introspective, deeply reverent improvisatorial opening is reminiscent of Bach (but with a smidgeon of Beethoven), and is indeed an unlikely way to begin a concerto, especially when followed by a fairly bombastic orchestral introduction, which itself is then followed by a demurely romantic and sensitive theme (which was actually created by Saint-Saens’ pupil Gabriel Faure).  The second movement
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One can hear the skill of Saint-Saens the pianist throughout this concerto, with its arching, difficult scalar passages and arpeggios, ultimately sparking to the finale’s pyrotechnics.  But this exquisite concerto is a hallmark of Saint-Saens the composer as well, characterized by his beautiful turns of phrase and harmonic diversions.