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Saint-Saëns & Tchaikovsky

“Of all the musical instruments that might interpret a melodic idea, none imitates so purely the human voice, none pulls so firmly on the heartstrings, as the cello,” stated 19th-century Belgian composer and musicologist François-Auguste Gevaert. By this time, with a better-defined playing technique and increased power that made it more suitable for lush orchestrations, the cello had most definitely achieved maturity. It is not surprising, then, that the instrument held a powerful sway over a number of composers, including Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) and < a href= http://www.analekta.com/en/artists/Camille-Saint-Saens.683.html>Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), represented here.

The early 1870s saw Saint-Saëns driven by a constant desire to surpass himself, which led to several powerful compositions, including the Cello Concerto No. 1. The year before, he had written an intense and dramatic cello sonata, but the concerto showed off the instrument in an entirely different way. Indeed, his creative decisions—the expressive treatment of the solo part, the thematic concentration, the concise orchestral developments, the juxtaposition of contrasts, the lack of a traditional orchestral introduction, and the merging of the usual three movements into one—place this concerto in a class of its own.

The score, dedicated to cellist Auguste Tolbecque, who premiered the work on January 19, 1874, opens with a lightly orchestrated Allegro non troppo, giving the soloist room to shine with an ardent, triplet-based theme, which contrasts naturally with the lyrical second theme; this in turn is soon swept away by a double-stopped passage that leads to a third theme. In the Allegretto, a graceful, delicate minuet, the soloist is given free rein in a dreamlike countermelody in the cello’s middle—and perhaps most human—register, accompanied discretely by the string section. The triplets of the first movement, presented by the orchestra, announce the finale, which juxtaposes contrasting material in a rondo-like form.

The first piece Saint-Saëns completed after his marriage to Marie-Laure Truffot in February 1875, the short and cheerful Allegro appassionato, appears to have been eclipsed by other masterworks from this period, including the Piano Concerto No. 4 and the famous Danse macabre. And yet this delicately wrought piece dedicated to Jules Lasserre remains one of the most popular works in the cello repertoire, as is “Le cygne” (The Swan) from Carnival of the Animals, a poetic high point written a decade later.

When German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen—a colleague of Tchaikovsky’s at the Moscow Conservatory who took part in the premieres of three of the latter’s string quartets—received the Variations on a Rococo Theme in 1877, which he had commissioned from Tchaikovsky, he immediately took it on tour. Quickly realizing how deeply moving audiences found the third variation, “Andante” (they frequently applauded it), Fitzenhagen decided to rework the score by moving this variation to the end and rewriting certain transitions. Tchaikovsky was unaware of this mutilation until the work was published in 1889. Although outraged, the composer let the publication stand, and Tchaikovsky’s original version would not be heard again before 1941; indeed, most cellists did not start playing the original version until the late 1970s. The work hinges on a theme of Mozartian elegance followed by seven linked variations of entirely different styles, making it challenging for performers, who must switch from ardent lyricism to pure virtuosity in the blink of an eye.

In August 1887, by the bedside of his dying friend Nikolaï Kondratiev (chief producer at the Mariinsky Theater), Tchaikovsky overcame the spectre of death by writing the sketch of what would become the Pezzo capriccioso in a week. Upon his return to St. Petersburg, he sent the completed work to the editor Petr Jurgenson, suggesting that Wilhelm Fitzenhagen “might look over the cello part and suggest any markings specific to the soloist. […] This piece is the single fruit of my musical spirit from the whole summer.” It was premiered in February 1888, in one of Marie Benardaki’s salons, during a visit by Tchaikovsky to Paris, with the cello part performed by its dedicatee, Anatolie Brandukov. Brandukov also gave the premiere with orchestra in November 1889 in Moscow, with Tchaikovsky at the podium.

© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen

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Stéphane Tétreault
AN 2 9987-8
AN 2 9987-8
AN 2 9987-8

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