As a champion of authentic French art music, Camille Saint-Saëns shunned any influence of German Romantic composers and would have nothing to do with the modern excesses of contemporaries like Debussy and Stravinsky. This did not exactly make him popular.
To this day, Saint-Saëns is all too often regarded as an old-fashioned conservative. And yet he was able to give the classical genres a quite unique and even progressive manner. His Second Piano Concerto, for example, is anything but conventional.
Saint-Saëns was what you would call a child prodigy. His list of talents is a long one: in addition to being a composer and a conductor, he was also a pianist, organist, playwright, critic and naturalist. He even found the time to write a few travelogues. He was also known for his ability to compose fast, a skill that came in handy when the renowned Russian pianist and conductor Anton Rubinstein – and a good friend of Saint-Saëns – came to Paris in 1868 for a series of eight concerts conducted by Saint-Saëns himself. Just before the end of the tour, Rubinstein suddenly decided to make his own Paris debut as a conductor, with Saint-Saëns as soloist. The next available date for a concert at the Salle Pleyel was three weeks later. Saint-Saëns started writing, and 17 days later completed his Second Piano Concerto. That did not leave much time to rehearse. Saint-Saëns was therefore unsatisfied with the première on 13 May1 868.
Yet, the Piano Concerto in G Minor has become one of Saint-Saëns’ most popular and most frequently played works. It is structured as a ‘symphonic concerto’, with a dramatic role for the soloist. That is made immediately clear in the first movement, in which Saint-Saëns surprises us with a slow, free passage for solo piano in which Bach seems to be close by. Presumably, this part originated as an improvisation on the organ – Saint-Saëns was a gifted organist and was admired by Franz Liszt, among others. With this slow first movement, Saint-Saëns altered the traditional sequence of the concerto from fast-slow-fast to -slow-fast-fast. The second, virtuoso movement – the audience favourite at the première – and the whirling tarantella in the finale constitute a veritable challenge to the concert pianist.