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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 1 in E flat major (1852) [33.41]
Symphony No. 2 in A minor (1859) [23.00]
Phaťton – Symphonic Poem (1873) [9.25]
MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra/Marc Soustrot
rec. MalmŲ Concert Hall, MalmŲ, Sweden, 19-23 August 2013
NAXOS 8.573138 [66.06]

The assured First Symphony, composed when Saint-SaŽns was only seventeen years old, shows remarkable facility such that it was appreciated by Berlioz and Gounod. Understandably and undeniably it is derivative of early-mid nineteenth century styles especially those of Beethoven and Schumann, as Saint-SaŽns himself acknowledged. There's a nod towards Wagner in the assertive finale. The first movement’s commanding martial material is contrasted with more hesitant reflective music with horns providing interesting perspectives. The second movement, marked Marche-Scherzo, has a bucolic atmosphere with folksong-like music juxtaposed with a march that sounds as though it’s led by the pompous conductor of a village band. After tiptoeing to its conclusion, the Adagio slow movement has a hushed opening using muted and tremolo strings. The main theme, an attractive long-breathed melody, unwinds slowly. It is given to clarinet first and violin before going on to flute and cor anglais over rippling harp figurations and tremolando strings. The finale calls for much augmented forces including double woodwind and pairs of E flat trumpets, two saxhorns and three trombones with four timpani and four harps – all to frame an assertive, jubilant march.

The assured Second Symphony written some seven years later displays more imagination, ingenuity and elegance in, for example, the use of a fugue as a basis of the opening movement. The new Symphony was not performed until 1862, under the baton of Jules Pasdeloup to whom the work is dedicated. It is more sparingly scored than the First Symphony. After much assertive material, the brief second movement is hesitant and delicate in character and treads daintily. There is much to recall eighteenth century gentility. The following scherzo third movement with interesting springy cross-rhythms skips confidently and the work concludes with a sunny tarantella reminiscent of Mendelssohn.

Saint-SaŽns’ symphonic poem, Phaeton, scored for a large orchestra, echoes the classical legend. The arrogant but unskilled young Phaeton has driven the sun chariot through the skies but his lack of experience startles the horses. The burning chariot is thrown off its course and it comes too close to earth. To save the world, Jupiter strikes the foolish Phaeton with his thunderbolt. All this action – the stampeding horses and the thunderbolt - is evoked in Saint-SaŽns’s exciting music and the work ends in an affecting apotheosis as Phaeton’s sisters mourn their reckless brother and are then turned into poplars to re-establish the world order.

Soustrot and his Malmo players respond to this early Saint-SaŽns symphonic music with enthusiasm and ťlan.

Ian Lace

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