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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835 – 1921)
Symphony No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 2 (1852) [33:41]
Symphony No. 2 in A minor, Op. 55 (1859] [23:00]
Phaťton – Symphonic Poem, Op. 39 (1873) [9:25]
MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra/Marc Soustrot
rec. MalmŲ Concert Hall, MalmŲ, Sweden, 2013
NAXOS 8.573138 [66:06]

Having had slight interest in Saint-SaŽns’s symphonic oeuvre – I had heard the organ symphony – I some years ago got to know his Second Symphony, and found it, well, charming. By contrast with my colleague Ian Lace, who reviewed this disc a while ago, I had no comparison recording and thus started from scratch, as it were.

The First Symphony was composed when Saint-SaŽns was only seventeen and is remarkable in its own right – although it is hardly a masterpiece. He had not yet learnt to be economical with the material. The introduction is slow and almost sacred, but the allegro – airy and conversational – quickly takes over. This certainly is in line with the composer’s youth. It is a rather energetic movement – but elegant. Elegance is the keyword for the second movement as well, even when the trumpets introduce a fanfare-like theme, reminiscent of a similar figure in the first movement.

The adagio, mild and melodic, is like a summer’s day with a warm breeze softly rustling the leaves – lovely but maybe overlong. The march that constitutes the finale could indeed refer to the entry of the guests at Wartburg in Tannhšuser. After a short period of indecisive direction we are brought into a fugato, full of energy. There is a disarming charm about this first symphonic effort by a composer whose productivity flowed for almost another seventy years.

It may be an unfair comparison with another French youth’s early symphony, Bizet was also 17, but he had already learnt to economize with his material. Saint-SaŽns’s similar effort should have been trimmed but remains a charming addition to anyone’s collection of 19th century symphonies. His second try at the genre proves that he had learnt something.

This Second Symphony was written seven years later but not published until much later, hence the high opus number. It is much more concentrated and also less opulent in the scoring.

The opening movement bristles with energy and develops to a fugue. Saint-SaŽns was indeed technically accomplished. The second movement is mild and restrained, the scherzo is, well, a scherzo with vitality and charm. I have more and more realized that Saint-SaŽns was a charmer. Someone said that Saint-SaŽns was the best composer who wasn’t a genius. To contradict this I would like to refer to the finale of his Second Symphony. The prestissimo opening is a whirlwind tarantella, worthy of any of the great nineteenth century composers. It is interrupted by a short andantino before the tarantella brings the symphony to a rousing end.

Phaťton is a vital and life-enhancing symphonic poem, melodious and with some contemplative moments at the end.

Without any comparisons I was wholly engrossed in these readings and the playing of the MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra and the recording of it is up to the highest standards.

GŲran Forsling

Previous review: Ian Lace