Saint-Saens Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 33

performed by Sir Steven Isserlis and the London Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, or below from Mstislav Rostropovich and the London Philharmonic under Carlo Maria Giulini

“Here, for once, is a violoncello concerto in which the solo instrument displays every register without the slightest difficulty in penetrating the orchestra.”

Sir Donald Francis Tovey

For some reason, I feel like if Liszt were to have written a cello concerto, it would have been something like this. This piece is stunning in its vibrance, its opulence, its beauty, all things sumptuous and richly expressive, but never overdone. It’s genius.

The work was written for Belgian performer and instrument maker August Tolbecque, whose family had connections to important music societies (or the important music society) in France. The work was first performed, by Tolbecque, on 19 January (a week from today!) 1873 at the Paris conservatoire, which John Palmer says was  “then a bastion of conservatism that usually programmed only works by old or dead masters.” The Wikipedia article on the work states that “This was considered a mark of Saint-Saëns’ growing acceptance by the French musical establishment,” and I should think so.

The work is not in three movements. An interesting aspect of the work, maybe as a result of Liszt’s influence on the composer, is its cyclic form, says Wiki, referencing a musopen.org listing. The work is in one large movement, with clear subsections that do seem to serve as the delineations you’d expect to be ‘movements’ of a work. If you take a look at the Structure and Overview section of the Wiki article, you’ll see a whole bevy of themes: four for the first movement, one for the second, and three for the third. Try to see if you can identify them throughout the work.

With four themes in the first movement, it seems we are not dealing with any standard sonata form, and the very opening of the work tells us that it’s not going to be a traditional one. The orchestra gives us one punchy exclamation mark, to which the cello responds with the first theme of the work, a lyrical, memorable, gorgeous virtuosic line that ends with an echo of itself an octave lower. The orchestra retorts with another chord, and the cello answers. The orchestra’s next few responses are pizzicato, and it’s as if instantly the cello has gained the upper hand. Throughout this stunning first movement, and the work, you’ll want to pay attention to a few things. For one, the soloist is always at the forefront, the undisputed star of the show. That being said, though, there’s never a point where the orchestral accompaniment is relegated to any kind of unimportant, subsidiary role. The writing for both parties is vivid, with lots of call-and-answer, and motivic development that gives the piece great momentum.

In reality, each of the movements is quite short, with the work overall safely under twenty minutes, but it feels grand and hefty. The first movement is full of virtuosity and vibrant, richly Romantic expressiveness, leading into the second movement without pause. It’s here that the work begins to feel much more like a cyclical work, or at least not a standard structure. The more we see of it, the more we realize that these interconnected sections are continuations, parts of the same whole.

Actually, wait. The other things you should look out for in the first movement are the bold contrasts in the work, in every way. The opening scene between cello and orchestra presents contrast, there’s contrasts in thematic material, in dynamics; it seems nothing stays the same and yet everything is related, giving the work a brilliant vividness. Aside from that is the use of triplet figures. They feature in the the themes of the first movement and, as we shall see, in multiple themes of the third. A triplet figure might seem like a pretty boring motif, but it stands out as an connecting element between the outer sections of the piece.

Okay, the second movement. It’s labeled as a minuet, and it begins with almost Christmas-y sounding plucked (and muted) strings, and slowly unfurling into a bowed melody, over which the cello enters. It might seem more like a serenade or intermezzo than an actual minuet, especially with the soloist at the forefront, but it’s outrageously beautiful, and for all the unconventional layout of the work, we get a cadenza from the cello in this shortest movement of the piece, which occurs almost at the center of the overall piece, actually, like the gleaming gem at the center of this beautiful setting.

The cello has the final word in the second section, reaching into the finale, which makes up almost half the playing time of this spectacular work. Pay attention to the oboe’s opening line. Does it not sound like the cello’s first utterance from the opening? Other members of the orchestra gives the ‘echoes’ that the cello handled itself at the opening. It’s now unmistakable that what’s been woven together for us is a tightly constructed single-movement work, and while the third movement doesn’t do any actual boring rehashing of the opening, there’s enough familiarity here to bring the work together, and isn’t that just beautiful?

The orchestra really gets to bellow out for a brief moments before the cello returns to take the spotlight in an exciting, virtuosic passage, but what comes right after it is quieter, somber almost, what Palmer describes as “Sarabande-like”, until things come to life again. The third movement is an exquisite thing, tying up all the loose ends of the work, but introducing other new ideas, and a coda wraps the piece up in A major.

I need to find better alternatives to words like vibrant, vivid, bold, colorful… because they tend to lose their punch after being used repeatedly like this, but Saint-Saëns’ first cello concerto is a work that grabs you by the wrist and doesn’t let you go for the entire duration. It’s a captivating, brilliantly executed work, and it’s obvious why, despite its apparent extreme challenges, the work has become a standard of the cello repertoire. It’s just so beautiful.

So there we have it folks, our first actual cello concerto on the blog, and what a killer work it is. As each weekend rolls around, you’ll have at least some indication of what’s to come the following week. Some of the composers on the roster only wrote one cello concerto, so those will be pretty obvious. But that’s all for now. We’ll have to say so long to Saint-Saëns for the time being, but I’m more eager than ever to get back to some of his work, and there’s plenty of it to enjoy. Stay tuned for more good music.

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