Saint-Säens always insisted everyone played everything too fast,
but he, who had a technique which knew no difficulties, played faster than
anyone.* Only once do I remember his playing too slow.
This was at Dieppe [...] where I was conductor of the Casino summer concerts.
I had a beautiful orchestra there, made up of the finest French musicians,
and the concerts were very serious and very famous. For a time Jacques Thibaud
[1880-1953, of the Thibaud-Casals-Cortot trio partnership of the twenties
and thirties] was the violin solo. All the great artists of the day played
at these concerts. One day I received a letter from Saint-Säens saying
he had a desire to play the Schumann Piano Concerto with me. He knew 'Dieppe
had a fine orchestra and a pretty good conductor.' His one stipulation was
'No advertising, as there would be too many people in the hall, and it would
be too crowded and hot!' I answered I would indeed be honoured for him to
play the Schumann Concerto with me, and promised we would not tell a soul
who the artist was to be that week. Naturally, as was to be expected, this
secret caused more excitement and curiosity than if we had announced the
extraordinary event. At the rehearsal people peeped in the windows, hid
behind seats and doors, and made themselves obvious in many annoying ways.
That evening, the hall was full to overflowing. It was very hot, much too
The master received a great ovation when he entered, and the Concerto
proceeded in its usual form until the last movement. At the rehearsal [the
engagement was evidently on a one-rehearsal/concert basis, present-day popular
style] the master had said, 'You know, Monteux, this finale is, after all,
romantic. Indeed the whole concerto fairly breathes of spring, love, Goethe.
Everyone plays it too fast.'
I, not knowing the tempo he would take, said, 'Mon cher Maître,
I beg of you, play it as you will.'
He then played it a bit slower than is usual, which did not astonish
me too much. But at the concert you can imagine my suprise when, with what
I thought a wicked, sardonic smile, he proceeded to play the movement, which
is marked Allegro vivace by Robert Schumann, in an Andante moderato
tempo! We could hardly keep our faces straight and some of the musicians
at the back desks laughed behind their music wholeheartedly. However, the
player was Saint-Saëns, France's most distinguished composer, and the
public gave him the largest acclamation of the season.
- © Doris Monteux, It's All in the Music (New York
& Toronto 1965, London 1966)
* Harold C Schonberg, The Great Pianists (New York 1963,
London 1964), observed that 'Saint-Saëns seems to have had a fluent
technique, considerable flexibility, a sec touch, restricted dynamics
and a tendency towards speed. Harold Bauer said that he played most things
too fast. There seems to have been nothing he could not do in the way of
technique, but emotionally he was reined in.' AO
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