When Saint-Saëns wrote his first Cello Concerto in 1872, he was still a controversial name in conservative French musical circles, known as a modernist young radical and “prophet of Wagner.” He was nonetheless an established figure, and had occupied this position for some time, since he had made waves early as a child prodigy. Berlioz, his senior by more than 30 years and his ally in the artistic wars, once said that Saint-Saëns “knows everything, but lacks inexperience.” Saint-Saëns would live long enough to outlive his antagonists and himself become known in his later years as a reactionary in Parisian musical circles, which by then were witnessing Stravinsky’s ballets.
The Cello Concerto in A minor is an intriguing departure from standard concerto form. It begins as a normal-enough sonata allegro first movement; having the cello enter immediately was an unusual touch. In a more radical change, the movement simply slows to a halt during the development section, and is then interrupted by what amounts to a separate movement, marked Allegretto con moto and in three-four time. It resembles a minuet enough that it might as well be one, and its sound, with strings muted and largely eschewing the bass register, has a music-box charm that contrasts markedly with the energetic Allegro, which returns and finishes as if nothing had happened. Saint-Saëns thus achieves a single movement that has the effect of the traditional fast-slow-fast three-movement concerto.
The Concerto was well-received from the start, particularly in France, where it was perceived as being free from Saint-Saëns’ unfortunate modernist tendencies. One Paris critic suggested that more works in the same vein would restore the prestige he had lost with “his all-too-obvious divergence from classicism.”
— from a note by Howard Posner