The boundary between pain and pleasure is blurry, and this wonderful cello concerto feels like a balancing act between the abyss of pain and the summit of passion. Camille de Saint-Saëns wrote in 1902 his Cello Concerto No. 2 in D minor (Op. 119). I have two recordings and I can recommend both. The first is by Zuill Bailey and the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, the second by Stephen Isserlis and the NDR Symphony Orchestra. What strikes me is the energy, the power, the tension of the piece maintained over the two movements with virtuosic parts for the cello and beautiful rhapsodic indulgences for the orchestra, first of all for the strings. What a pleasure it must be to perform this piece!
Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 2 saw its premiere in 1905 and was more or less forgotten afterwards, if I trust the sources I consulted. Something I cannot quite understand. This piece is so extraordinary thrilling, how could it NOT be performed! Critics then and now argued that it is less… there we have it! Less what? Less refined? Less elaborate? 30 years seperate Saint-Saëns first from his second cello concerto. It would be strange and sad if they looked alike. It would mean that the composer had not evolved in his musical language, an unconceivable idea for a genius like Saint-Saëns.
The two concerts – and I have listened to both at least a dozen times now – share the boldness bordering on violence. But I consider the second concerto as more mature. Mature in the sense that the composer has condensed the music. It has fewer playful elements and it is less lyrical than the first. I attribute this to the gravitas of age. The composer was 67 when he composed the piece. He had seen music evolve over almost half a century, he had helped to built a new foundation for French music, and he had changed himself, grown a wiser man.
“A wonderful chef”
In an piece about Saint-Saëns, the writer Jessica Duchen quotes the cellist Stephen Isserlis saying that he has “played all [of Saint-Saëns’] cello music and there isn’t one bad piece. His works are rewarding in every way. And he’s an endlessly fascinating figure.” The writer and producer Simon Callow is even more enthusiastic in that piece: “I love his music most of all for its extraordinary elegance and individual variety of wit. As he said himself, he wrote music as an apple tree grows apples. His craft is elevated to a pitch of such strength and confidence that he’s able to produce things of beauty to order. I like to think of Saint-Saëns as a wonderful chef. Nothing is ever too heavy; and always there’s some fresh, original ingredient, some spice that he’s found in the Orient or picked up on the Nile to create an excellent new culinary sensation. He’s the Escoffier of music!”
The “Escoffier of music” – well, I like that! The Grand Master of the early French Cuisine. Escoffier codified the recipes for five basic sauces and laid down the foundation of what would become the very distinct and refined French way of cooking. As any amateur cook knows, the sauces are the tricky part of the art. They can quickly turn from sublime to disaster and the trick is to be attentive to details and to scrupulously respect the balance between the different ingredients. Saint-Saëns testifies of his ability to maintain this balance in his cello concerto from the beginning to the end. Do yourself a favor and enjoy this piece!
© Charles Thibo