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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Symphony in F major Urbs Roma (1856) [41:40] La jeunesse d’Hercule, Op. 50 (1877) [18:27] Danse macabre, Op. 40 (1874) [7:18]
Marika Fšltskogh (violin) (Danse)
MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra/Marc Soustrot
rec. MalmŲ Concert Hall, MalmŲ, Sweden, 29-30 August 2013. DDD NAXOS 8.573140 [67:25]
This is volume 3 in Marc Soustrot’s series of Saint-SaŽns’ orchestral music. I have not heard the others, but they were well received here (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2). The current volume contains one of the composer’s least known works, one of his most popular, and his last and longest symphonic poem.
Saint-SaŽns had already completed his official Symphony No. 1 when he composed the Symphony in F with its Urbs Roma subtitle having little or nothing to do with its content, but rather as a requirement in entering the symphony in competition. It would be fun to play this recording as a “guess the composer” game, because I doubt that anyone would identify the symphony as a work of Saint-SaŽns. That is not to say it isn’t an attractive piece. It begins with an arresting horn fanfare leading to Beethoven-like chords as an introduction to the sonata-form first movement. Indeed, I detect Beethoven’s influence throughout the symphony, but also Weber, Mozart and others. When the Allegro proper takes over the lilting theme is much more like Mendelssohn, and Schubertian lyricism is not that far away either. The fanfares this time on trumpet and again on horn return in the movement, and it concludes with Eroica-like chords. I find it well constructed and interesting. The first movement is followed by a delightful scherzo where Mendelssohn tends to dominate, though I also hear hints of Berlioz here. The third movement is a somber funeral march with Beethoven’s in his Eroica an obvious forerunner. There are also some rather sinister downward runs in the bassoon and other woodwinds that remind me of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and even anticipate The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Later the oboe enters with a quiet melody evoking Schubert. The last movement is a theme and variations beginning with a gentle theme played by the strings. This is no triumphant conclusion, though the variations offer enough variety to sustain interest. The symphony ends quietly with soft timpani strokes underpinning the woodwinds and a final chord on the strings.
Marc Soustrot clearly understands the symphony and makes a convincing case for it. It is very well performed by the MalmŲ Symphony. I may not want to hear it that often, but it is attractive enough to merit the occasional listen. Soustrot is also successful in the two symphonic poems that accompany the symphony. Of course, Danse macabre has attained the status of a warhorse and is often performed. La jeunesse d’Hercule, on the other hand, has not received anywhere near the exposure of the other. It is the last of Saint-SaŽns’ four tone poems and the longest. It is also by some measure the weakest. It recalls Liszt with its use of harp and strings, as in Les prťludes, though there are also Mendelssohnian passages. However, I find it too extended for its material.
Danse macabre is one of Saint-SaŽns’ most familiar works and can easily be overdone. Here Soustrot maintains a light touch with crisp and clear winds. Marika Fšltskogh, the orchestra’s concertmaster, plays her solos representing Death well enough, even if they could use a bit more sting. The full string complement’s rendering of the waltz theme is rich without the sumptuousness of Ormandy’s Philadelphians. However, the timpani should project more around 4:20 as they do for Ormandy and Dutoit in their recordings. The brass are given their head in the climax of the waltz and are balanced very well with the strings. Soustrot pays special attention to the oboe solo representing the cock’s crowing and to the sombre ending of the work. It is not just an afterthought as it sometimes sounds. Overall, this is a fine performance of an old chestnut and timely for Halloween.
Keith Anderson provides his useful notes in the CD’s insert and the whole production is up to Naxos’s high standard. The notes even include the poem by Henri Cazalis upon which Danse macabre is based. Anyone collecting this series should not hesitate to add this volume and for others the symphony at least makes a good party piece.