From its opening bars, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33 defies convention.
We are denied the expansive orchestral introduction which traditionally sets the stage for the entrance of the soloist. Instead, the Concerto is launched into motion with a single A minor chord which lands as a vigorous, attention-grabbing punch. The solo cello enters immediately and sweeps us forward, breathlessly, with the rhapsodic and tempestuous main theme. Rather than the traditional three separate movements, Saint-Saëns’ Concerto unfolds as a continuous melodic stream which is divided into three sections. The initial theme returns throughout the Concerto and develops organically to create a thrilling, cyclic drama. In this way, Saint-Saëns continues the technique of thematic transformation used by Franz Liszt.
The solo cello emerges as a heroic, declamatory voice, at once exuberant, soulful, and melancholy. With boundless virtuosic energy, it takes us from one adventure to another. While engaging with the orchestra, the cello takes centerstage as the undisputed star of the show. The musicologist, Donald Francis Tovey wrote, “Here, for once, is a violoncello concerto in which the solo instrument displays every register without the slightest difficulty in penetrating the orchestra.”
Listening to this music, we are reminded of Saint-Saëns’ insistence that
Form is for me the essence of art. The music-lover is most of all enchanted by expressiveness and passion, but that is not the case for the Artist. An artist who does not feel a deep sense of personal satisfaction with elegant lines, harmonious colors or a perfect progression of chords has no comprehension of true art. Virtuosity gives a composer wings with which to soar above the commonplace and the platitudinous.
Following the tempestuous first section (Allegro non troppo), a new scene emerges (Allegretto con moto). With muted strings, it is an elegant minuet which nostalgically evokes a Baroque courtly dance. The final section (Tempo primo) begins with a quiet restatement of the opening theme in the oboe. Rushing forward with a new theme, the coda section brings the Concerto to an exhilarating conclusion.
Saint-Saëns composed this music in 1872 for the Belgian cellist, Auguste Tolbecque, who gave the premiere in January the following year with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra.
This concert performance from February of 2020 features cellist Gautier Capuçon with Alain Altinoglu and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra:
- Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33, Renaud Capuçon, Gautier Capuçon, Lionel Bringuier & Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France Amazon
Featured Image: Paris Street; Rainy Day (1870), Gustave Caillebotte