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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Ascanio (1887-1888) - ballet music from Act 3 [24:26]
Les Barbares (1901) – prologue [14:25]
La jota aragonese (1880) [4:09]
Andromaque (1902) – prelude to Act 4 [4:54]
Andromaque (1902) – overture [8:35]
La princesse jaune (1871-1872) – overture [6:26]
Ouverture d’un opťra-comique inachevť (1854) [5:39]
Ascanio (1887-1888) – alternative versions of two numbers from the ballet music from Act 3 [4:37]
MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra/Jun Mšrkl
rec. 2018, MalmŲ Live Concert Hall, MalmŲ, Sweden
NAXOS 8.574033 [73:38]

Earlier this year my MusicWeb colleague Stuart Sillitoe gave an enthusiastic recommendation to a recording of Saint-SaŽns’s much-neglected grand opera Ascanio conducted by Guillaume Tourniaire, something of a specialist in the composer’s output (review). As long ago as 2011 M. Tourniaire could be found leading Orchestra Victoria on a disc of music (Melba MR301130) written by Saint-SaŽns for those danced interludes that were then considered virtually de rigueur in opera. As well as the complete ballet music from Act 3 of Ascanio, there were two numbers from Henry VIII, six from Etienne Marcel and a further four from Les barbares.
That particular disc’s portmanteau title Elan was a pretty good choice as, when listening to the music, it’s a word that comes repeatedly to mind. Nonetheless, with the exception of the frenzied bacchanale from the final scene of Samson et Dalila, nothing that Saint-SaŽns wrote specifically for dancing has attained much in the way of widespread stand-alone popularity. Indeed, it was, rather ironically, a piece not written for dancers that inadvertently became a worldwide ballet party piece some years later after Mikhail Fokine had choreographed part of Le carnaval des animaux as The dying swan for ballerina Anna Pavlova (see ZoŽ Anderson The ballet lover’s companion [New Haven, 2015], pp. 76-77). It might be thought, therefore, that Naxos has made a canny commercial move by expanding this new CD’s contents beyond ballet interludes to include other elements from Saint-SaŽns’s operas such as overtures and preludes.

Unfortunately, however, the company may, I think, have scored something of an own goal by according the Ascanio ballet music pride of place on the front cover and placing it first on the disc. To be fair, the divertissement’s individual numbers are never less than well-crafted. Some are accurately characterised by CD booklet essayist Dominic Wells as “baroque pastiche”. Others bear more recognisably late 19th century fingerprints, even if enforced brevity in some instances deprives them of much opportunity to create or sustain atmosphere. I suspect that purchasers attracted to Saint-SaŽns by previous encounters with the Organ symphony, Danse macabre or that Samson et Dalila bacchanale and now taking a punt on this unfamiliar repertoire might find the Ascanio ballet music rather small beer and, indeed, something of a bland anti-climax. The main issue, however, is that played sequentially, while simultaneously robbed of the supporting and explanatory context of any on-stage action, their very stylistic inconsistency makes it hard to engage with them. It might therefore, I think, have been a better idea to kick proceedings off with something in the way of a more obvious crowd pleaser – perhaps the jaunty La jota aragonese, a typically 19th century ersatz-Spanish concoction which, one imagines, the prolific Saint-SaŽns could have dashed off effortlessly and in no time at all.

As already indicated, apart from the Ascanio ballet the disc’s producers have included a wide-ranging selection of Saint-SaŽns’s output. The most substantial single item is the prologue to Les barbares, a melodramatic tale of pre-Christian Gauls under attack from marauding Germans. While the piece is somewhat episodic, at least this time it is held together by a consistent musical idiom, while the accompanying booklet notes usefully make it easy to understand what parts of the story are being depicted at any particular moment.

The incidental music that Saint-SaŽns composed for Racine’s Andromaque is less obviously pictorial and more concerned to underscore the sombre mood of Greek tragedy. While some of the musical episodes are of very short duration, this disc gives us two of the more substantial ones. The overture makes it plain that the audience is in for a pretty serious few hours, with its increasing turbulence suggesting more than a mere undercurrent of passion and potential violence. Meanwhile Act 4’s sombrely delineated prelude confirms that some deeply complex and conflicted emotions have come well into play by that point in the drama.

After all that doom and gloom, the mood of two much earlier overtures, La princesse jaune and Ouverture d’un opťra-comique inachevť, is, thankfully, far lighter. The former frequently utilises stock pastiche musical language in its depiction of Japanese royalty – to the bemusement, no doubt, of this recording’s half-Japanese conductor - even if, to my own ears, its opening passage sounds somewhat geographically off kilter and more Tangiers, perhaps, than Tokyo. The Overture d’un opťra-comique inachevť, on the other hand, offers no obvious musical clue as to what the story of its uncompleted associated comic opera might have concerned. An attractive little romp given its premiŤre by Beecham in 1913 after languishing forgotten and unperformed for nearly 60 years, it is full of the genial high spirits and joie de vivre that we so often associate with the bon viveur composer.

Saint-SaŽns was never less than a consummate professional and, even though few would claim that any of this music is at the highest level of invention, it is certainly worth getting to know. The Swedish orchestra’s expert playing, whether in the precisely-delivered delicacy of Ascanio’s pastiche baroque or the more lushly romantic musical idiom found elsewhere, only enhances the experience. There are certainly no issues with the quality of Naxos’s typically well-engineered sound.

The author of the supporting booklet essay, Dominic Wells, has done a very useful job, though there is, as far as I can see, no explanation of why the disc’s two final tracks should be listed as “alternative” versions of numbers from the Ascanio ballet. I wrote as far as I can see there because the booklet itself is, from the purely physical point of view, a disaster. I quite understand that sometimes, in the production process, the stapling can go awry – in which case it’s possible, albeit annoying, to take the booklet apart oneself and restore the correct sequence of pages. I have never, however, seen anything like this particular booklet where the page order runs 1, 6, 7, 4, 5, 2, 3 and 8 so that, with page 6 actually permanently printed on the inside of the front cover, page 3 being forever printed on the inside of the rear cover, and so on, no coherent – or, indeed, linguistically consistent – text can ever be (re)created in sequence. Explanatory notes are even more useful than usual in generally unfamiliar scores like these, so having to read continually backwards and forwards through this booklet has proved to be an annoyingly inconvenient fly in the ointment in an otherwise welcome addition to the catalogue.

Rob Maynard

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