Saint-Saëns' Fourth Piano Concerto was first performed October 31, 1875, at the opening of Edouard Colonne's "Artistic Association," a series of concerts dedicated to the memory of Georges Bizet. After a concert performance of the concerto in Antwerp the piece was praised as a combination of "the force of Liszt and the suavity Chopin."
In it, Saint-Saëns is engaging in an experiment with the Classical-era forms. There is only one full stop in the piece, dividing it into two movements. Each of these, however, is clearly divided into two parts, with further subdivisions in the second of the two movements. Thus, its form resembles that of his Third Symphony. Saint-Saëns maintains the traditional contrast between keys and fast and slow sections, but the order of events is experimental.
As in the First Piano Concerto there is no orchestral introduction, only an opening phrase played pizzicato in the strings that begins with an upward leap of a tritone (C natural to F sharp). And as in the Second and Third Piano Concertos there is no solo introduction: the piece begins with the orchestra and soloist alternating statements of the first phrase at different pitch levels. Segments in which this theme is transformed -- intervals widened, rhythms altered -- rotate with nearly literal restatements of the theme as the piano part becomes increasingly flashy. A loud C major chord in the orchestra and a brief ritard introduce the key of A flat major and a new section, marked Andante. Rapid, quiet arpeggios and scales for the soloist dominate this part, in which the rising tritone again appears. The virtuosity and weight of the piano part, including massive broken chords, increases relentlessly to the end of the movement.
Saint-Saëns approved of playing the two movements without pause, and this is generally how the piece is performed. The atmosphere of the second movement stands in stark contrast to the introspective tone of the first. A transformation of the main theme of the first movement becomes a Scherzo-like idea in triple meter that bounces along with unbounded energy. The closing theme of the movement is chorale-like and gives way to a close of almost Lisztian bravura, in C major.
The pitch F sharp is of great importance in every part of the concerto, functioning as a push toward the dominant in the first part of the first movement and as part of a path toward A flat major in the second half. In the second movement Saint-Saëns uses it first as a chromatic inflection and later to emphasize the dominant.
Some critics have suggested the lack of developmental procedures in Saint-Saëns' Fourth Concerto is a shortcoming or even a failing. It is difficult, however, to justify superimposing a Beethovenian concept of development on a work that is not constructed along such lines. The juxtaposition of, and interrelationships between, succeeding sections is formal device at work in this piece.