Saint-Saens – Piano Concerto No. 2

More Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)

Piano Concerto No. 2

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame

Harry Pearson put this recording on his TAS List of Super Disc LPs, and with good reason — the sound is wonderfully relaxed and natural. This is no Hi-Fi Spectacular, as is the case with so many of the records on his list. (Hey, we like our Demo Discs every bit as much as he does; just not the same ones. SR 90006 and LSC 2225 on Classic? Really?)

Side two of this White Dog pressing has Super Hot Stamper sound, and side one is not far behind with a sonic grade of A+ to A++. The richness of the strings, a signature sound for RCA in the Living Stereo era, is displayed here beautifully for fans of the classical Golden Age. It’s practically impossible to hear that kind of string sound on any recording made in the last thirty years. It may be a lost art but as long as we have these wonderful vintage pressings to play it’s an art that will not be lost on us.  

Side Two

A true Super Hot Stamper side, rich but clear and open, with very little smear to the strings (smear being almost impossible to avoid completely in these vintage all tube recordings).

Side One

A+ to A++ sound, with a bit more smear and opacity than side two but otherwise tonally every bit as correct.

Concerto No. 2

Saint-Saëns composed and first played this work in 1868. It is scored for pairs of winds, horns and trumpets, plus timpani and strings. During his long and prodigiously creative life—first as a child prodigy, then as a “Futurist,” then as a conservative, and finally as a vituperating fossil—Saint-Saëns composed five piano concertos between the ages of 20 and 61. The Second (and enduringly most popular) was created hurriedly in the spring of 1868 after the Russian pianist/composer/conductor Anton Rubinstein asked him to arrange a Paris concert. Because the Salle Pleyel was solidly booked and therefore not available for three more weeks, Saint-Saëns proposed that he himself write a new piece for the occasion. On May 6, with Rubinstein conducting, he introduced the Second Concerto, although not with much success. There had not been time to practice it sufficiently, and a portion of the audience was put off by the work’s stylistic swings (“from Bach to Offenbach” was pianist Sigismond Stojowski’s bon mot of the month).

Gabriel Fauré, a pupil of Saint-Saëns at the time, remembered years later that he had shown his teacher a Tantum ergo setting. Saint-Saëns glanced at it hurriedly, then said, “Give this to me. I can make something of it!” What emerged was the main theme of the first movement (Andante sostenuto) of the new G minor Piano Concerto, following a solo improvisation in the manner of Bach to get things started. A gentler sub-theme (the composer’s own) has a Chopinesque flavor, especially in its keyboard embroidery in thirds.

Like Saint-Saëns’ opening movement and finale, an Allegro scherzando in between is written in sonata form. The spirit is nonetheless elfin, in the Mendelssohn manner—much as the Frenchman’s long-finished but not-yet-published Second Symphony had been —although the second theme in the second movement of the concerto anticipates the Carnival des animaux, still two decades down the road.

The finale is a Presto tarantella in 2/2 time, whose G minor tonality reminds us that Mendelssohn ended his “Italian” Symphony 35 years earlier with a minor-key tarantella. If Saint-Saëns’ premiere audience was not immediately cordial—Parisians had become as exasperatingly superficial as the Viennese—Franz Liszt praised the Second Concerto without stint, saying that it pleased him “singularly.” Not for the first time, nor for the last, was his praise prescient. Later on, of course, Parisian audiences let everyone believe they’d loved it from the start.

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