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Camille Saint-Saëns was the compleat Frenchman. In his long life, beside being a prolific composer he was an author of books on music and on subjects as diverse as philosophy, painting, literature, and the theater; a linguist; a raconteur; and an insatiable world traveler. Saint-Saëns was, in short, something of a phenomenon. Creatively, one could say, he was a life-long prodigy. Melodies flowed from him effortlessly; his grasp of form and orchestration was redoubtable; he was a craftsman of the highest order. Depth and substance, however, were not his priorities. He was satisfied simply to exercise his enormous musical gifts and not try to find the meaning of life.

Considering the nature of those gifts, it is no wonder that Saint-Saëns found that composing solo concertos was right up his creative alley. His ten concertos – five for piano, three for violin, and two for cello – as well as other works for solo instrument with orchestra, all display the elegance, brilliance, and melodiousness which made up the sum of his remarkable talent. Possibly because of an awareness of his own limitations, and to justify his creative results, Saint-Saëns once wrote: “The artist who does not feel completely satisfied by elegant lines, by harmonious colors, and by a beautiful succession of chords does not understand the art of music.” In describing tonight’s concerto, he should have added, “and by dazzling violinistics of every sort.”

In the premieres of his piano concertos, he himself was the soloist; for the first performances of his First and Third Violin Concertos, he had the advantage of having these works in the remarkable hands of the Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. The present work, written in 1880 and the most often played of the violin concertos, abounds in the elements of technical display and appealing lyricism that audiences understandably love so well.

The first movement evolves around a bold, dramatic first theme, a songful contrasting theme, and fistsful of rapid scales, arpeggios, and double stops. The slow movement, a limpid, barcarolle-like section, exudes an easy, flowing grace; the ending has the unusual timbral color of the solo violin in harmonics combined with clarinet, both playing arpeggio figures.

The finale, built on a broad plan, begins with a recitative-like introduction, which moves on to a main theme for the solo that bristles with energetic, proud bravura. A second, major-key theme’s forceful, buoyant nature is brought into sharp contrast by a subsequent chorale-like theme, also in major, that is reverential in character. Toward movement’s end, both major-key themes are greatly intensified and given the grandiose treatment that is an absolutely essential condition for Romantic concertos. The work is brought to a brilliant close as the violin whips up ultimate excitement with the second theme.

— Orrin Howard