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ClassicsOnline Home » SAINT-SAENS, C.: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-3 (Clamagirand, Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla, P. Gallois)
Once dubbed ‘the French Mendelssohn’, Camille Saint-Saëns was a prodigiously gifted composer of sophisticated and appealing music much of which has been unjustly neglected in recent times. His three highly inventive and technically demanding violin concertos, of which the Second is arguably the most memorable and the Third the best known, abound in unforgettable melodies and expressive subtleties. The young Parisian violinist Fanny Clamagirand, who won First Prize at the 2005 Fritz Kreisler Competition in Vienna and First Prize at the 2007 Monte Carlo Violin Masters Competition, the competition of competition winners, is an ideal interpreter of this gorgeous French Romantic music.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, Camille Saint-Saëns showed remarkable precocity as a child, first exhibited in piano lessons from his great-aunt at the age of two and a half. He coupled with his musical interests a wide general enthusiasm for learning of all kinds, literary and scientific, and was, as a composer, to produce music of many genres during a career that spanned the second half of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, starting in a period that knew Mendelssohn and continuing beyond the death of Debussy.
Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1835, the son of a clerk in the government service, who died shortly after the birth of his only child. He was cared for by his mother and her adoptive aunt, whose husband had recently died. It was she who gave him his first piano lessons. Thereafter he studied with Camille Stamaty, a pupil of Kalkbrenner and of Mendelssohn, and appeared in public concerts as a child, having, by the age of ten, memorised all the Beethoven piano sonatas. At the same time he showed an aptitude for and interest in a great variety of subjects. In 1848 he entered the Conservatoire, studying the organ with Benoist and composition with Halévy, and continuing to show his gifts as a pianist, organist and composer. His intellectual curiosity led him to espouse the cause of contemporary music, as well as the revival of music by earlier composers.
A member of the circle of Pauline Viardot, a valued friend, Saint-Saëns taught briefly at the newly established Ecole Niedermeyer, where his pupils included Gabriel Fauré, a musician with whom he established a close relationship. In 1871, after the disasters of the Franco- Prussian war, he was instrumental in the foundation of the Société Nationale de Musique, with its aim of propagating French music, Ars Gallica. His great-aunt died in 1872 and three years later he contracted a marriage that came to an abrupt end six years later, after the earlier death of his two sons. The death of his mother in 1888 left him alone and he spent much of his later life travelling, accompanied by his dog and a loyal manservant. By the time of his own death in Algeria in 1921 he had to some extent outlived his reputation at home. In France this was the age now of Les Six. Debussy was dead, Fauré was near the end of his life, and Stravinsky had already, some eight years before, scandalized Paris with his Rite of Spring. Saint-Saëns continued to compose, although Ravel unkindly suggested that in war-time he might have been more productively employed. Abroad he retained something more of his earlier fame. Once known as the French Mendelssohn, he had written music that appealed to audiences in much the same way as his predecessor’s, for its clarity of texture and its attractive powers of invention, calculated to delight rather than to shock.
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A major, Op. 20, was, in fact, the second of the three violin concertos of Saint-Saëns, written in 1858, a year after the Violin Concerto No. 2 in C major, Op. 58. The A major Concerto was written for the young Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, to whom he was to dedicate his third concerto and the popular Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.The concerto is cast in one movement. The soloist enters at once with a series of strongly marked chords. Trills lead to the cantabile second subject, set first in C sharp minor rather than the dominant key of E major. A development of the thematic material is followed by a cadenza and the D major Andante espressivo, the soloist accompanied principally by muted strings. The themes of the first part of the movement return in reverse order, the second theme making its appearance in D minor, modulating to allow the return of the opening A major theme. The concerto was published in 1868.
The first concerto, in order of composition, the Violin Concerto in C major, Op. 58, has enjoyed less success and was not published until 1879. It was dedicated to the painter and musician Achille Dien, who played the work at a soirée given by Saint-Saëns at the Salle Erard in 1860. The first movement, marked Allegro moderato e maestoso, allows the soloist to enter in the third bar with a dramatic theme, establishing the virtuoso nature of the work. To this a second thematic element provides a brief contrast. The orchestra presents its own version of the opening and a secondary theme. The soloist leads to the second subject of the movement, in E major. The material is developed, returning in a varied recapitulation before an elaborate cadenza. The A minor second movement, Andante espressivo, entrusts the main theme to the soloist, after its brief and tentative foreshadowing by the orchestra. There is a contrasting central section and the main theme returns, played in octaves by the soloist and further elaborated, before leading to the final Allegro scherzando quasi allegretto, a rondo, its principal theme stated by the solo violin and recurring to frame contrasting episodes, including an excursion into the contrapuntal. The work ends with an Allegro vivace coda of cross-rhythms.
The third of the concertos, the Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61, was written in 1880 and dedicated to Sarasate, who was not at first enthusiastic about the work, taking it more fully into his repertoire only after he had heard a performance of it by Eugène Ysaÿe. The soloist enters almost at once with an emphatic and dramatic theme, to which other material offers contrasts. The B flat major second movement, Andantino quasi allegretto, is pastoral in mood, dominated by its gently lilting principal theme, and ending in a coda allowing the soloist a molto tranquillo series of harmonic arpeggios in accompaniment. The final movement starts Molto moderato e maestoso with a recitative that is to return later in the movement. This leads to an Allegro non troppo, with a well defined melody for the violin, to which there is a contrast in a more lyrical theme and a calmer cantabile section, introduced by the orchestra and taken up by the soloist. The opening recitative returns, followed by the main theme and a more emphatic version of the secondary theme, leading to a triumphant final Più allegro.
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SAINT-SAENS, C.: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-3 (Clamag...