Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto: Fazıl Say in Concert

After hearing the premiere of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2, the pianist and composer Sigmond Stojowski remarked that it “began with Bach and ended with Offenbach.”

Indeed, this is music which takes us on a wildly exhilarating and mercurial ride. Its structure shakes up the traditional concerto form with a slow and solemn first movement, a bright scherzo for the second movement, and a concluding presto.

In May of 1868, the great Russian pianist, Anton Rubinstein, was in Paris performing a series of concerts conducted by Saint-Saëns. Rubinstein expressed a desire to conduct a program with Saint-Saëns as the soloist. The preferred date was only three weeks away. As a result, Saint-Saëns wrote the entire piece in 17 days. This left little time for the composer to learn his own technically demanding music, resulting in a harrowing and less than successful premiere.

The first movement (Andante sostenuto) begins with haunting echos of a Bach keyboard fantasia. Developing above a powerful pedal tone and set in stormy G minor, the opening bars erupt like a bold and impassioned improvisation, perhaps even a musical “announcement.” Beginning in the depths of the instrument, these exuberant lines surge to the highest register and then cascade back down, as if to set the stage for all of the bravura to follow. The melancholy first theme, heard after the entrance of the orchestra, is said to be adapted from a composition exercise written by Gabriel Fauré during his time as a student of Saint-Saëns. The final bars return to the haunting mystery of the opening introduction, with its homage to Bach.

The second movement (Allegro scherzando) takes a capricious turn away from all of this tempestuous drama. Marked leggiermente (“lightly, delicate”), it’s a playful romp filled with bright splashes of color and  effervescent musical conversations. Childlike innocence, exuberance, and humor abound. Listen for the brief, parody like allusion to the first movement’s introduction (15:53).

The final movement (Presto) is a furious saltarello, a lively Italian dance dating back to the late fourteenth century. The name is derived from the verb saltare (“to jump”). Listen to the way the flamboyant trill motive (20:05) takes on a life of its own, developing in a variety of ways over a cycle of modulations, and eventually opening the door to a new melody (21:27). Later, the ominous power of the first movement’s introduction returns in the form of monumental sonic columns in the piano’s bass line (24:08). The final bars end in a fiery, virtuosic flash.

Here is Fazıl Say’s powerful performance with Kristjan Järvi and the Orchestre National de France, recorded on October 6, 2014 at Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet. As an encore, Say performs his solo piano work, Black Earth (27:43). Inspired by the popular song, Kara Toprakit’s a piece filled with the sounds of Say’s native Turkey. The piano’s extended sound world evokes the bağlama, a Turkish lute. Jazz blends with a thousand-year-old folksong tradition.


About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

4 thoughts on “Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto: Fazıl Say in Concert”

  1. Thank you for introducing me to the pianist Fazil Say playing Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2. As an encore, Say’s solo piano work Black Earth, blending jazz with Turkish folksong tradition, was very interesting.

  2. Thank you for the Saint-Seans concerto. Certainement, ce n’est pas Sans-Sentiment!
    I am savoring a portion at a time, in between my various responsibilities today. What silky, gorgeous textures at the outset, its deep powers hidden so far. NOW the outbreak begins! Trumpets emerge from their cages. A subdominant looms, a great ocean swell approaching the beach. Fazil Say carries the emotion on his face, totally oblivious to our regimen in college which spoke that we oughtn’t to display emotion at the keyboard. His face and the music are one. The eyebrows. I am not making fun of this; I am certain this guy is real, and has given us a special understanding of this music. It is fascinating to watch him – in a sequence of minor chords, one major chord brightens it and I see a small smile just for that chord.

    Watching musicians helps relieve the quarantine blahs. Why do oboes and flutes dip their head before a phrase? I don’t know; is it for breath, or a help in creating the line? I enjoy seeing the director; he is the straight man, as calm as Han Solo diving into a nest of Imperial fighters. And the poor violinist to the pianist’s left. For much of the thirty-six minutes he is in the camera, slightly out of focus, terrified, I think, that he will be caught blinking . . .
    Well, I have clipped the hedges and mowed the lawn, and it is time soon to hear the end of the Saint-Seans. I think the good guys will win.

    • @Greg Moore–I enjoyed your humor! As for your observation, “Fazil Say carries the emotion on his face, totally oblivious to our regimen in college which spoke that we oughtn’t to display emotion at the keyboard.” I wonder what you would think of the provocative, exuberant Khatia Buniatishvili playing Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto:
      or playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2!
      I was so intrigued by Ms Buniatishvili that she was the catalyst for another visit in February (before I realized the perils of Covid-19) to Paris to hear/see her perform!

  3. And now Khatia Buniatshvili with glorious Rachmaninoff. What can I say to such perfection of tone, and power beyond measure? Not so physically demonstrative as Mr. Say, but every bit as deep a performance.
    My thoughts went to Rachmaninoff, how he composed. I began to think, “he does the same thing over and over”, and the reply came back (since I talk to myself a lot), “yes, like the waves of the sea do the same thing, and I sit and watch them spellbound for hours. They come in at various depths and across various rocks; and sometimes a sneaker wave zips across the whole scene and overwhelms you.” You could play this behind that video of a tanker moving through 100-foot swells, and it would do just right.
    I hear Gershwin in this, or vice-versa, the Rhapsody dating almost a quarter-century later. In any event, I am a fool for high Romanticism – thanks for this beautiful post!


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