Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Op. 103 “Egyptian” (Piano Reduction for 2 pianos, 2 copies)
(composed in 1896)
Preface to the full score:
I. Allegro animato p.1
II. Andante-Allegretto tranquillo quasi andantino-Andante p.61
III. Molto allegro p.93
As a young composer, Saint-Saëns was one of the leading representatives of the progressive tendencies in French music. However, his career as a composer in France developed in a rather unusual manner. His compositions did not correspond with the French taste of the time, which placed the opera at the centre. In contrast, symphonic music was only marginal. Therefore his music was more successful in Germany (where above all Franz Liszt supported him), than in France. At the end of his long life he was regarded as a traditionalist and opponent of the modern. This unfortunately often lead to Saint-Saëns’ music being underrated. Thus, in Riemann’s Encyclopaedia of Music his music is characterized as follows: “In his compositions, in which he combines his considerable ability with a cool austerity and elegance, formal and technical characteristics are strongly predominant.”
Saint-Saëns was a brilliant pianist and organist, so it is not surprising that he wrote five piano concertos for his own use. All five are of a high musical quality and very gratifying for the pianist. They were written over a period of almost 40 years and are quite different. In the concert hall, particularly the 2nd and 4th piano concertos have become established.
Saint-Saens travelled a lot, but he felt particularly attracted to North Africa. Especially in the wet winter months he left Paris and regularly lived in Algiers or Cairo. This affection to North Africa is apparent in several of his compositions, for example “Africa”, fantasy for piano and orchestra op. 89 and “Suite algérienne” for orchestra op. 60.
In the spring of 1896 in Cairo, thus twenty years after his piano concerto no. 4, he wrote his fifth and last piano concerto. Because of the oriental references the work soon acquired the additional name “Concerto égyptien”.
The first movement is structured in sonata form, however against convention, and the usual quick tempo it is kept more pastoral and lyrical. The lyrical character becomes apparent in the first section, where Saint-Saens does not use trumpets, trombones or percussion. The soloist must master a series of technically extreme challenges, yet the virtuosity of the piano part is never too apparent or superficial. This is also emphasized by dispensing with a cadenza!
The composer himself said of the second movement: “It is a sort of oriental journey which in the passage in F sharp even reaches the Far East. The passage in G is a Nubian love song that I have heard sung by sailors on the Nile, as I sailed downstream on a Dahabie”. By using the pentatonic and the particular instrumentation, an exotic colouring is created. The form of the movement is very free and thus appears like a large scale improvisation.
The last movement is a toccata. The rhythm of the opening echoes the beat of the motor of a pounding Nile steam ship. In this movement the element of virtuosity appears more in the foreground.
The first performance took place on the 2nd of June 1896 in the Paris Salle Pleyel at a concert to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the composer on stage. The 61 year old composer played, as in all first performances of his five piano concertos, the solo part himself. The conductor was Paul Taffanel. The concert was a triumph for the composer. In a review it was said: “We have never heard a more fascinating or colourful work; Rubens, Raphael and Michelangelo have provided inspiration, one finds fantasy, grace and power; at the same time the audience admires this unique form, that the greatest musician of our time masters perfectly, and this wonderful imagination, that shares with us new and unique artistic impressions”.
Saint-Saens arranged the final movement for piano for two hands. It is part of the “Etudes pour piano” op. 111 and carries the title “Toccata d’après le cinquième concerto”.
Duration of performance about 30 minutes.
Translation: John Conrad
Performance material is available from Durand, Paris. Reprint of a copy from the cillection Ernst Lumpe, Soest.
>>> Deutsches Vorwort zur Partitur lesen > HERE