Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Danse bacchanale from Samson et Delilah, Op 47 [6:52]
Le Rouet d’Omphale, 31 [8:01]
Phaëton, Op 39 [8:29]
Danse macabre, Op 40 [6:44]
La Jeunesse d’Hercule, Op 50 [14:06]
Suite algérienne, Op 60 No 4, March militaire française [4:18]
La Princesse Jaune, overture, Op 30 [6:00]
Une nuit à Lisbonne, Op 63 [3:43]
Marche du couronnement, Op 117 [6:23]
Maya Iwabuchi (violin) (Danse macabre)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 14-15 September 2011, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland
CHANDOS SACD CHSA5104 [77:36]
This Neeme Järvi-led program of Saint-Saëns orchestral highlights is vintage Järvi: precisely drilled, with exceptional rhythm and a multitude of true rarities, but missing the last degree of romantic passion. Saint-Saëns is not a composer I associated with this conductor before, but he largely defies expectations. This is certainly not Camille-meets-Prokofiev.
The main feature of this album is its eclecticism: you won’t have heard the extended overture Spartacus, in all likelihood (there’s a BIS CD), nor Une nuit à Lisbonne, nor the exceedingly rare Marche du couronnement. We can’t really pretend these represent Saint-Saëns at his most inspired, but some of them are worth noting: Spartacus might have nothing on Khachaturian, but the opening is surprisingly chromatic, even jarring, and the overture to La Princesse jaune is a fine bit of impressionism graced with a wonderful cor anglais solo and a surprisingly catchy piccolo tune. The general impression one has is of Saint-Saëns as an heir to Berlioz: think of Béatrice et Bénédict, in which the older composer combined his own smooth, eccentric melodies with an elegant French style and classical-era grace. A lot of the second half of this CD is like that, so you’ll be disappointed if you expect more frenetic, loud merriment like the Bacchanale.
Speaking of the Bacchanale, this one, as implied earlier, has all the notes in the right places and is played extremely well by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, thanks in part to the “French lessons” they took under Stéphane Denève. It conveys the thrust of the excitement, but there’s something missing. Maybe it’s abandon: Järvi refuses to go wild. He wants to, perhaps, but cannot. This restraint makes the Danse macabre rather unthreatening - compare to Bernstein, where even the harp is a terror - although Maya Iwabuchi contributes deliciously demonic solo violin work. The tone poems Le Rouet d’Omphale and Phaëton are done with elegance and style; Phaëton is a frustrating near-classic which has fallen off concert programs because all the good stuff is at the beginning and then it continually gets slower and softer.
I think the summary is of a rather mixed achievement: Neeme Järvi has accumulated an interesting, unusual program of hits and obscurities, some of which are available nowhere else; the Royal Scottish National Orchestra plays with its usual excellence and in wonderfully clear, realistic sound quality; and the feeling of ‘Frenchness’ and classical elegance is hard to beat. That said, I would have appreciated a little more mania and madness. I guess the bottom line is that this is vintage Järvi, but I sometimes wish it had been Beecham or Bernstein instead.
Previous reviews: Dan Morgan and Brian Wilson