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Camille SAINT-SAENS (1835-1921)
Symphony No.1 in E flat, Op.2 [33:12]
The Carnival of the Animals [23:11]
Symphony in A [25:41]
Utah Symphony/Thierry Fischer
rec. 2017/18, Abravanel Hall, Salt Lake City, USA
HYPERION CDA68223 [82:05]

Among the very first LPs in my youthful record collection were several from the Utah Symphony Orchestra under Maurice Abravanel on the Vanguard label, including what were my first and extremely revelatory encounters with both Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem. The Utah Symphony also ignited a short but fervent love-affair with Richard Adler’s Wilderness Suite when I stumbled across their RCA LP of the work made in 1983 under Charles Ketcham. It would be fair to say that, despite never having even set foot in Utah, the Utah Symphony played a very significant part in my musical development, even if I did not know it at the time. How sad, therefore, that I had forgotten all about its existence until this new release from Hyperion turned up. Once again they have opened my eyes to music I had not heard before, even if my initial encounter with Saint-SaŽns’s unnumbered Symphony in A major has sparked none of the revelatory enthusiasm they provided with Vaughan Williams, Gershwin or even Richard Adler. There is a revelatory performance on this recording, but it’s not to be found in the Symphony where Saint-SaŽns’ almost obsessive admiration for Beethoven infuses every bar and gives it a certain felling of dťjŗ vu.

Composed in 1850 (yes, the work of a 15-year-old boy) it is clear that the models of Beethoven, and specifically of Mozart’s Jupiter were much to the fore as he set about on what was his first serious symphonic essay. Serious is not quite the right word, for while the symphony weighs in at a hefty 25 minutes and includes four fully-developed movements, even at that tender age, Saint-SaŽns able to exude charm, elegance and a certain amount of wit. Roger Nichols enthuses over the work in his booklet notes, commenting on the “imaginative touches to show that here was a fine composer in the making”, and there is no doubt that here is some masterly orchestral scoring as well as a thoroughly assured handling of extended musical form. One cannot help think that, had Saint-SaŽns devoted more time to writing symphonies and less to producing what was one of the most extraordinarily remarkable and wide-ranging work lists of any composer in history (few realise he wrote the first ever film score), he would not so much have been the natural successor to Brahms as the natural successor to Beethoven, so fluent and easy did he seem to handle symphonic matters. Certainly Thierry Fischer treats the work with all the respect and care he would lavish on Beethoven or Brahms, and his players respond solidly with some suitably elegant and neat playing.

My knowledge of Saint-SaŽns Symphony No.1, composed some three years after the A major work - so still, technically, the work of a teenager - rested until this recording came along wholly on the Naxos recording featuring the MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra under Marc Soustrot. They seem to have much more of the spirit of the music than do their American peers, and while I admire the graceful gestures and sense of tidiness which informs Fischer’s performance, the true essence of Saint-SaŽns seems to infuse every moment of the Naxos recording. That said, on purely technical terms, the Hyperion recording gives us much more inner detail and a crystal-clear, beautifully-proportioned sound, which pays handsomely in the delightful second movement “Marche-Scherzo”, the disarming melody wafting easily across the orchestra with the harp playing a key role in keeping it all in the air. If anything, it’s the spirit of Schubert which hangs prominently over this movement, and the profusion of lovely tunes is made all the more satisfying by Fischer’s expansive approach. Even more lovely is the solo clarinet playing which announces the broad-sweeping theme of the third movement, and while the initial magic soon wears off with some slightly inelegant string tone, you get the impression Fischer is utterly convinced as to the soaring qualities of this lovely music, with his vision easily overcoming the occasional limitations of the orchestra itself. As Nichols writes in describing this movement, “Little can be said except in admiration of music that flows abundantly” (how perfectly true!), and while he sees the seeds in the highly militaristic fourth movement that bore such rich fruit in the Third Symphony, it is difficult to escape a powerful aftertaste of Beethoven’s Eroica here.

Interestingly, the promised revelation comes with the orchestral version of The Carnival of the Animals. With pianists Jason Hardink and Kimi Kawashima bursting with virtuosity and projected well to the forefront, there is something of a chamber feel to this, but enhanced by some simply exquisite instrumental playing from the orchestra itself. Of special note here is the delectably spiky clarinet “Cuckoo”, the tremendously invigorating flute as it takes flight across “the Aviary” and the exquisitely graceful cello “Swan”. Some 20 years ago the Philharmonia Orchestra recorded this orchestral version with Djong Victorin Yu on the short-lived Carlton Classics label. Memorable there was the “Elephant” in which something like 14 double basses were lined up against the back wall of the Royal Festival Hall and let loose with all the gusto of a herd of charging pachyderms. There clearly aren’t so many double basses here (the booklet, which gratifyingly gives all the orchestra members, lists nine bass players), but given this splendid recording, the impact is even more potent. If I were looking for something revelatory to come out of this disc it is this vivid and majestic performance of a very familiar old favourite.

Marc Rochester

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