Our music for this week is the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Camille Saint Saens, performed by the great Arthur Rubinstein.
Saint-Saens is a bit of an anomaly. He lived during the era of Debussy and Stravinsky, but he scorned their modern pretensions and composed music that harkened back to the golden era of Romantic music. This piano concerto is perhaps the pinnacle of his pompous style, as it incorporates the compositional styles of his contemporaries but only enough to overshadow them with the Romantic grandeur of Saint-Saens’ preferred style.
The story of its composition is astounding. The renowned Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein (not to be confused with the above-mentioned Arthur Rubenstein) came to Paris to visit Saint-Saens and decided that he wanted to learn how to conduct. Saint-Saens obligingly lent him the baton for a concert, and the pianist was so thrilled by the experience that he asked Saint-Saens to compose and play a piano concerto while he (Rubinstein) conducted the orchestra. Although there were only two weeks until Rubinstein left town, Saint-Saens managed to create, master, and perform this concerto in just 10 short days.
You will recognize the format of this work – three movements with alternating tempos, ending with a faster movement. However, unlike most concerti, the first movement is not an exposition of virtuosity but rather a slow, pensive contemplation. The opening of the concerto is striking because it is colored by a flourishing cadenza, but the main theme carries a much more sombre tone. As a joke toward one of his disdained colleagues, Saint-Saens based the main melody of the first movement on a nursery rhyme written by Gabriel Faure for his nieces to use while learning to play piano. Saint-Saens takes this simple tune and shatters it into a myriad of colors and textures that Rubenstein does a marvelous job of interpreting. Interestingly, the work both begins AND ends with a cadenza, which is a soloistic demand not usually placed on performers.