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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 2 in A minor Op. 55 (1859) [22:42]
Danse Macabre Op. 40 (1874) [6:56]
Symphony in F Major ‘Urbs Roma’ (1856) [43:03]
Madeline Adkins (violin), Utah Symphony Orchestra/Thierry Fischer
rec. 2017/18, Abravanel Hall, Salt Lake City, USA
HYPERION CDA68212 [72:42]

Many people see the music of Saint-SaŽns as falling in between two camps, ‘too modern’ for the musical conservatives, ‘too conservative’ for the modernists. This leads to the neglect of much of his fine music. Yes, it gets the occasional recording, but I for one have never seen the two symphonic works presented here on any concert program. This is a real pity, as the composer of the imposing and famous Third Symphony is to be found in this richly orchestrated and colourful music. I have always liked the grand sweep of Saint-SaŽns’ music. I know recordings of both these early symphonies, including those by the Orchestre National de l'ORTF and Jean Martinon (EMI CZS 5 85186 2), Wiener Symphoniker and Georges PrÍtre (Erato 3984-24236-2), and the Tapiola Sinfonietta and Jean-Jacques Kantorow (BIS-790). The works of the composer are a regular on my CD player.

When Fischer and his Utah forces released their account of the Symphony No. 3 (CDA68201), I tended to ignore it, after all who needs another recording of the Third. But after reading the reviews, including that by John Quinn in these very pages, my interest grew and it is on my wish list. So, I was eager to hear this disc when it came out, and I wasn’t disappointed by these very good recordings. The disc opens with the Symphony No. 2, a work which like his 1st Symphony, owes much to the Austro-German tradition and especially to Mendelssohn and his Symphony No. 4. The most concise of Saint-SaŽns’ symphonies, being even shorter than the early A Major Symphony, this work is notable for the way in which the composer takes themes from the first three movements and reprises them in the final Prestissimo movement, a fine example of the composer’s cyclical technique. The symphony also includes, in the second movement Adagio, one of Saint-SaŽns’ finest slow movements, with his development of the main theme being superb.

The central work on this disc is a fine, if relatively tame recording of the ever popular Danse Macabre; I find the performance on the whole to be a little too polished and precise, so that it lacks the spark of excitement and danger. But then if you buy this disc it will be for the two symphonies and not the Danse Macabre, which leads us to the Symphony in F Major ‘Urbs Roma’, which is the longest of the five symphonic works that Saint-SaŽns composed. This is a developmental work in which the composer was working out his own symphonic style, and as such you can understand why it does not feature amongst the composer’s numbered examples of the genre. At times it is as if Saint-SaŽns is experimenting with thematic development, an example of this is in the first movement which seems to run out of steam. I quite like the slow movement, but as with the first, some judicious editing might have been beneficial. However, there are flashes of inspiration in this work and I particularly like the exposition section in the final movement. Saint-SaŽns was an excellent orchestrater and the seeds of this are clear in this colourful and interesting work; it might not keep the attention as much as the numbered examples, but the composer’s stamp is clear and there is still much to enjoy.

The performances of the symphonies are polished and clear, the clarity aided by the slightly slower tempos compared to all the recordings mentioned above. You do get a sense of space and at times of grandeur in Thierry Fischer’s interpretations which lead to your getting more from the music, with every little phrase coming across well. As a whole this is a very enjoyable performance, one which makes me bump up their recording of the Third a place or two on my wish list, and also look forward to their recording the 1st and A Major symphony’s which I hope is in the pipeline. As to the question of preference, sound wise this recording is preferable to either Martinon or PrÍtre, although both do drive the works forward a little more. It would, however, be the version by Jean-Jacques Kantorow that would gain my vote, the faster pace combined with the excellent sound eventually winning through.

The recorded sound, as already indicated, is excellent, as are the three pages of booklet notes by Roger Nichols, which are informative in the way the music is contextualised. Overall, a fine, if a little slow recording, one that hopefully will make listeners appreciate that there is more to Saint-SaŽns than his ‘Organ’ Symphony.

Stuart Sillitoe

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