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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Alborada del gracioso (1918) [7.47]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1911) [6.03]
Rapsodie espagnole (1908) [15.28]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No.3 in C minor Op.78 Organ (1886) [35.00]
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Ludovic Morlot
rec. live, S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington, USA, 19-21 September 2013 (Ravel), 27-30 June 2013 (Saint-Saëns)
SEATTLE SYMPHONY MEDIA SSM1002 [64.23]

Composers of late nineteenth-century French music divided neatly into those who succumbed to the influence of Wagner (such as Saint-Saëns and Franck) and those who did not (Debussy and Ravel) and instead took the road to impressionism. This disc has music of both, albeit Ravel’s was written twenty to thirty years later than when Saint-Saëns wrote his third symphony.

Ravel was born in a small Basque village just inside the French border with Spain and maintained strong links with his Iberian roots. His music is rich in colour and that colour is permeated with three identifiable elements of Spanish influence, namely orchestration, rhythm and harmony. Saint-Saëns on the other hand, had a love for the warm climes of North Africa, particularly Algeria, where he would regularly spend the winter. His music captures the exoticism and climes of that and similar places in works such as the Suite algérienne and the opera Samson et Dalila. While his Organ symphony does revert to a more formulaic and abstract style, we still can marvel at its masterful orchestration.

Ravel’s music as featured here is Spanish to the core, falling just short of the hugely popular Bolero, while his operatic equivalent to Saint-Saëns’ Samson is L’heure espagnol. They have been recorded in live performance. Alborada del gracioso was originally conceived for solo piano (one the five Miroirs) 13 years prior to scoring it as a composite ballet also containing music by Fauré and Chabrier, performed in London. An Alborada is a morning serenade while a gracioso is a figure of fun or a buffoon: the ailing Spanish knight Don Quixote springs to mind. The contrast of moods could not be starker — loud, energetically rhythmic, pizzicato strings and harp imitating guitars and with castanets — either side of a slow, melancholy section dominated by a mournful bassoon in a quasi-recitative and improvisatory style.

The Pavane (for a dead princess) is based on an eighteenth-century courtly dance and it too originated as a piano piece (1899), while Ravel was still a student of Fauré. There is a great deal of subtlety about its scoring, which the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s performance brings out with fine horn and wind solos and lush strings. This follows an alternately blazing or sombre account of Alborada under their London-trained music director Ludovic Morlot. In the splendidly played Rapsodie espagnole Morlot adeptly highlights, in marvellous clarity, the colours of the more exotic instruments. Clarinets and bassoons are splendid in their duet-cadenzas and the orchestra rises to its virtuosic heights with consummate ease at the thrilling conclusion.

While on the subject of thrilling conclusions, Saint-Saëns provided one in this third symphony. It’s hard to imagine that at its first performance on 19 May 1886 at a Philharmonic Society concert (for which it was commissioned) at St James’s Hall in London, it was probably given a staid reception. Saint-Saëns himself conducted, having just performed his fourth piano concerto in the first half of the concert. The symphony may follow the language and lineage of Schumann and Mendelssohn but it has its own idiosyncratic fingerprints belonging to Saint-Saëns. The work was dedicated to Liszt when his death was announced two months after the premiere and therein lie several points of significance. It was Liszt — as famous a pianist and organist as Saint-Saëns — who saw the score a year before its completion and professed his admiration for it. It had been Liszt, who, in the 1840s, took the symphony down the road to the symphonic poem after Beethoven threw the genre into disarray with his ninth in 1824.

While there is no programme in Saint-Saëns’ work, it nevertheless has recurrent motifs and a structure of two pairs of movements rather than the traditional four. These nevertheless follow the conventional patterns with a discernible theme and variations as the second part of the first half and a scherzo at the start of the next as well as contrapuntal episodes dominating the finale and befitting the complex fugal traditions of extemporising French organists.

On the matter of scoring, Saint-Saëns proved himself adept and the master of the coup de théâtre. The string writing is for the most part translucent (Mendelssohn) in the scherzo, having been lyrical (Bruch) in the Poco Adagio. There is no harp — that bedrock instrument of French music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — and the use of the piano is curious not to say extravagant. It features only in the second part, with one player playing scale passages in the Trio, after which another player has to join for only eight bars in duet with a flurry of arpeggios covering the full breadth of the keyboard at the beginning of the Finale. Both moments recall the piano writing in his Carnival of the Animals, which had been composed in February 1886, just three months before the symphony’s premiere. In the earlier work, scales depict the Hémiones (animaux véloces) or wild asses (swift animals), while the eight-bar duet recalls the darting fishes in the Aquarium. The entry of the organ might have inspired Richard Strauss in the similarly theatrical sunrise in Also sprach Zarathustra ten years later.

Ludovic Morlot paces the work brilliantly and builds the tension right until the all-powering release in the apotheosis which concludes the work. After the French premiere of the symphony, Gounod said of Saint-Saëns, ‘there goes the French Beethoven’ but Saint-Saëns in one of his more self-deprecating lows considered himself to be the ‘first among composers of second rank’. A pity he did not hear the audience on this disc, who, with good reason, go wild after the last chord of C major. That would have lifted the composer’s spirits.

Christopher Fifield

Previous review: Dan Morgan

Masterwork Index: Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony