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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 2 (1853) [33:12]
The Carnival of the Animals (1886) [23:11]
Symphony in A major (c. 1850) [25:41]
Utah Symphony/Thierry Fischer
rec. live 2017 (Carnival), 2018 (Symphonies), Abravanel Hall, Salt Lake City, USA
HYPERION CDA68223 [82:05]

I have a theory about Saint-SaŽns: that he’s most comfortable in orchestral works with those that showcase solo instruments. My evidence? His only well-known and often recorded symphony is No. 3, the Organ symphony, whilst his most popular work of all, The Carnival of the Animals, has starring roles for two pianos, flute, clarinet, violins, cello, double bass, xylophone and glass harmonica. At the same time as completing Thierry Fischer’s cycle of Saint-SaŽns’ symphonies, Hyperion have cannily put together on this CD a well-known work with little-known ones. So, the question for me to answer is, if you’re attracted to it by the Carnival, will your appreciation of the composer’s range be enhanced by this CD’s couplings?

Saint-SaŽns’ Symphony No. 1 opens warmly and smoothly with a brief Adagio introduction followed by an Allegro. The introduction muses on a head motif, low-lying in cellos and double-basses which also begins the first theme of the Allegro, still in low tessitura in first violins yet now with a somewhat anxious Mendelssohnian air, but also a determination to progress and become more cheerful with the melody now rising rather than the descending pattern favoured so far. The climax of all this is a fanfare motif from all the wind (tr. 1, 2:00) which begins the second theme whose gently curvaceous second part, repeated by the strings, is very Mendelssohnian and nicely inflected by Fischer. Saint-SaŽns next delights in simultaneously presenting the now soft fanfare and second part of the theme. Even more ingeniously, he repeats the Adagio introduction with the first theme head motif allocated to horn solo, original sober wind responses now sweetly illuminated in high tessitura violins and violas while the horn solo is gorgeously elaborated. This comes with an eloquently beaming glow from Fischer’s first horn, if more polite than the really fruity French horn playing of days of yore, partially glimpsed in Jean Martinon’s 1972 recording (Warner Classics 0852052), but not in the very chaste 2013 recording by Marcel Soustrot (Naxos 8.573138). Anyway, this sets up the expected more troubled development in the ensuing Allegro with sterner second theme fanfares in the wind and a grim version of the first theme head motif in the strings juxtaposed. A third espressivo theme on the oboe (5:18), yet one capable of being sourced from the symphony’s opening motif, and soon with cellos and then first violins’ support, not only restores the sunshine but precipitates us through a longish crescendo and then con fuoco excitingly into the third return of the Adagio introduction, with wind and strings blazing ff. I think Fischer could have made more of this, even though the following Allegro has to calm down briefly, and does refreshingly so from Fischer, before the return of the second theme fanfares, the triplet quavers of which softly yet insistently set up an effective coda.

I compare this with Martinon conducting the ORTF Philharmonic Orchestra. His introduction is more concerned with progression than Fischer’s beauty of atmosphere, his Allegro more urgent with more sense of resilience in the violins: argument and line is everything. The fire of his second theme fanfare stands out more, appropriately for the first fortissimo passage in the work. I’ve already mentioned what is a more pulsating voice in the horn solo of the second Adagio and Martinon’s development is then craggier than Fischer’s. Martinon’s later con fuoco is more frenzied and relieved a little by a still biting third Adagio. In sum, Martinon brings more drama but Fischer has the more glowing sound: Martinon’s string sound particularly is rather wiry.

The second movement is a Scherzo March and suddenly here’s the unalloyed pleasure of a catchy tune on the oboe quite unimpeded by all the meticulous building and structuring of the first movement. The community gets to share it and we get the contrast of a staccato strings’ backcloth for a more laid-back second theme on the flutes (tr. 2, 0:56). The March bit is the third theme (1:34), a fanfare motif from the trumpets taken up by all the woodwind and then the horns, in between whose exchanges the first theme continues to flourish in the strings. But it’s the clarinet, oboe, flute and first violins that bring a second part to this ‘March’ (1:54) which progresses to a duet for clarinets which again is like a sprinkling of Mendelssohnian magic backed by very light staccato quaver runs for the violins and flutes with clarinets in turn. The fanfares get a grander showing; at 3:38 the horns are directed to point their bells upward, but as it’s more Scherzo than March the fairy running quavers are the closing memory. 

Martinon gives more emphasis to dynamic contrasts in this Scherzo March, but not always to advantage. His very soft oboe opening and the perspectived recording make the song seem more secretive: you observe rather than feel engaged by it. But Martinon makes the second theme creamier and more open, heralding a sunny violins’ first theme return and, in turn, extrovert third theme. You become more, and perhaps too, aware of a process when it’s back to a shy manner with the first violins’ second return to the first theme against very deft staccato flutes and clarinets’ accompaniment, after which everything gets bolder again for the third theme’s return.

The Adagio slow movement begins with a long-breathed, melting clarinet solo: it lasts 1:43, its second part backed by first violins, nicely balanced by Fischer, a difficult task in this aria-like, climaxing melody. After a passage of second violins’ caressing quavers, sensitively done by Fischer yet still somewhat schmaltzy, flutes and cor anglais introduce a second theme (tr. 3, 2:14), a rising one which opens out the initial personal mood more universally, ending in an idyllic stasis of gently undulating clarinets and bassoons over snowflakes of descending quavers in harp and flutes. I say “ending” but Saint-SaŽns spins this out seamlessly until the return of the opening theme at 6:30, now more serene on the first violins with lashings of harp. I admire his youthful confidence. There’s also something of the quality of ballet and for me the mood is like the famous Adagio of Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus composed a hundred years later. Saint-SaŽns achieves much the same effect with more restrained orchestration and melody. Finally, the strings soar heavenwards into harmonics, but that journey doesn’t end, as a wary motif in the cellos links without a break to the finale and its breezy Allegro maestoso march.

Timing at 9:56, Martinon’s slow movement is markedly faster than Fischer’s 12:40. You could say more Adagietto than Adagio, but I find this approach convincing in making the structure and climax of the movement more apparent. It’s less beautiful than Fischer’s but more dramatic from the opening melody’s emphasis on progression and the greater prominence of the accompanying tremolando strings. Martinon’s caressing second violins are more troubled and tearful, his second theme more striking with more urgent contributions from the harps. With his warmly flowing return of the first theme you really feel Martinon’s belief in its worth.

For the finale (tr. 4) Saint-SaŽns adds 2 cornets, 2 saxhorns, 3 trombones, 3 harps and cymbals. In the first movement he already used a second set of timpani, but he uses both sets more here. The personnel list in this CD booklet indicates the cornet parts are played on trumpets and the saxhorn parts on tubas - not that you’re going to be able to pick out such instrumental detail in the prevailing razzmatazz, though I did enjoy the clarinets’ semiquaver runs from 6:03. This is a one-theme triumphal parade, a quiet start but rather quickly in pretty full throttle and Saint-SaŽns only just avoids it being a brass band jamboree by having some quieter passages, for example from 2:00, in which the strings and woodwind can be heard, and a fugal version of the theme introduced by the strings from 2:58. There’s also a respectful nod at Beethoven in devices like frightening tutti chords followed by the release of free-flowing woodwind from 4:04 and also a guarded development like version of the theme in the violins from 4:20 silkily surmounting the flowing woodwind. But I think you need to be in the concert hall fully to enjoy everything.

Martinon’s finale is a big-hearted and glowing, only a little slower, 7:25, than Fischer’s 7:07. The impression you get from Martinon is of a steadier parade at first, but one in which the tension mounts more as it progresses, so latterly it’s that tension that hits home, not the identification as with Fischer of a Beethovenian device. Similarly, the richness of the fugue is experienced intrinsic to the drama as a fitting peroration, most of all at the full wind entry and especially that of the trumpets. Martinon obtains more feel of reverence in the quieter passages and jubilation in the louder. Most cogent of all is the sense of seamless projection.

Regarding The Carnival of the Animals, of the fourteen zoo exhibits featured, including pianists, only The Swan (tr. 17) was published in Saint-SaŽns’ lifetime. I sense this is recognition of its finest melodic achievement: a simple but heart-rending melody, with enough repetition to ensure its memorability, yet enough melodic and harmonic variation to allow evocative nuance, for if a swan is singing it must be dying. The Utah Symphony cellist fully reveals the grazioso marking of this Andante, a grace for all seasons in this warm retrospect of life experiences, with sensitive, occasional touches of portamento, much gratitude but some melancholy tinges of regret too, conveyed with dignity and presence right to the closing pianissimo. Timing at 3:31, I prefer this more relaxed account to the 3:12 of the 1985 star-studded fully chamber account by Martha Argerich and friends with single strings (Philips E 4168412) I’m using for comparison, another account by the way without a spoken commentary, a later accretion for the work to introduce children to classical music which wasn’t Saint-SaŽns’ idea. The cellist here, Mischa Maisky, is more poignantly emotive, if that’s your preference, over a more active waterscape from Argerich and Nelson Freire.

I’ve chosen three other exhibits which for me are distinctive. Fischer’s Tortoises (tr. 8) are memorable and unexpectedly moving. Saint-SaŽns takes the can-can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld and slows it down to Andante maestoso for this small string orchestra played pianissimo. Always shepherded by becalming triplet quavers from the first piano, it’s warm, gentle and graceful after its own fashion despite the slow measure. Everything seems measured with an attempt at poise which you respect. Aesop’s tortoise and the hare comes to mind, also that tortoises are the longest living land animals, so this might be an affectionate tribute to overcoming the challenges of old age. It’s also a fine example of Saint-SaŽns taking a melody and transforming it by a different perspective. Argerich and her solo strings, timing at 2:58 to Fischer’s 2:33, have a touch of drag in a grittier performance, a determined steadiness to respond to the challenge, with the occasional harmonic clashes more noticeable. Fischer’s Kangaroos (tr. 10) gets across well the contrast in the two pianos alternating of rapid skipping movement and slow, softer floating, with a final arpeggio disappearing into thin air. It’s a terse, imaginative enhancement of what makes the creature special. They really hop rather than skip, but Saint-SaŽns freezes in slow motion the apex of that hop. For me Argerich and Freire, timing at 1:04, overdo this slow motion alongside the 0:56 of Fischer’s pianists, turning it into a documentary close-up rather than a refreshing novelty. Saint-SaŽns’ Aquarium (tr. 11) I find the most haunting, distinctive world of all with its flute melody over glistening pianos’ semiquavers, muted strings and dabs of I think celeste, more accessible than the original glass harmonica, especially its shimmering glissandos near the end which the flute in low register permits to make their presence felt. Fischer evokes well, with a light touch, the whole watery environment in a misty landscape and one fish streaming through it. As with the swan, Argerich’s recording gives us a more active waterway and a fish more like an explorer; but this time, at a slightly slower speed for this Andantino, 2:34 against Fischer’s 2:26, Argerich conveys more of the strangeness of this world.

The Carnival was the only unpublished complete work that Saint-SaŽns didn’t in his will “expressly forbid” to be published in future, so he didn’t want us to hear the Symphony in A major he wrote at the age of 15, but in 1974 his little nephew allowed it to be published, edited by Martinon, who made the world premiere recording then. Was Saint-SaŽns or his nephew right? I’ll give my verdict later.

There’s a Poco Adagio introduction which Fischer in this recording makes warmly exploratory before a rather laboured progress to fortissimo chords with a fanfare figure between. More attractive is the whimsy of a melting rising and falling figure in semiquavers by the clarinet and then flute before woodwind and strings tiptoe into the Allegro vivace (tr. 19, 2:00). I didn’t feel that it was a good idea to anchor this in the wind by the opening sustained four notes of the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony which Saint-SaŽns continues more impishly. His second theme (2:41) is a more attractive, smoothly rising one on the clarinet, soon taken up by the flute and much soon made of its playful closing descent by all the woodwind and first violins. The development (4:32) makes more and better, more bracing use of the thrown off phrase at the end of the exposition and then the second theme is more breezily projected by oboe and first violins, finding more substance by travelling through sequences. When Saint-SaŽns gets into the swing of it with the flute on melody, he adds quavers’ decoration on the oboe plus crotchet punctuation, the latter echoed by clarinet and bassoon (4:57 to 5:04). So, it’s as a humourist that Saint-SaŽns may make his mark. At least, not in imitation of Beethovenian rant which is more like protracted noise only rescued by returning to part of the introduction to allow for a smooth recapitulation of the Mozart headed material. Saint-SaŽns’ own continuation is now handled with more assurance and in the coda the flute adds a giggling and then quite graceful soft commentary, finally unseated by a loud tutti chord, as if this were a scherzo.

I compare it with that 1974 Martinon recording and how much more authoritative it is. His introduction is purposive to a bigger climax, weightier, more effective, the whimsy subordinated. The Mozart theme is more a background to the bristling violins: Martinon makes Saint-SaŽns’ additions count, sweeps forward convincingly and carries you along, even at the cost of a less beauteous second theme than Fischer’s. Not from Martinon Fischer’s Beethovenian rant but rather fervour, more rugged in the development, a belief in Saint-SaŽns’ message and I don’t blame him then for making that final forte chord fortissimo.

The Larghetto second movement displays a cantabile theme in low-lying strings in a somewhat hesitant gait: two staccato crotchets, then a dotted quaver and semiquaver. Saint-SaŽns sustains this, repeating its second, moderately climaxing, half until he turns from D major to D minor (tr. 20, 2:37). For me Fischer is too stiff, slow and emphatic here, for example the violins’ descending triplet semiquavers in the second strain need to be thrown away. As in the first movement, the flute cheers things up, here in the transition back to the D major opening, to which it adds its own semiquavers’ decoration, followed by clarinet, oboe and bassoon. Even the young Saint-SaŽns liked his frills. Now that cantabile melody is improved by more relaxed presentation because not by a sole performer. But then a spikier manner is assumed and here again I feel Fischer is stiff rather than tense. There is more biting power when the D minor material is revisited in E minor (7:45). This is the tragic climax and at 8:17 Fischer makes a pause not in the published score to allow an effective moment of stillness to usher in the transformation of the opening theme into a mellifluous hymn of consolation (8:31). The wind accompaniment is chorale like but an open-air locale is signalled by the welcoming waters of a gurgling second clarinet. And it then dawned on me that opening respectful gait is one of pilgrims, as it comes again in the coda (9:34) after the hymn’s climax, but to end at 9:50 would have been neater than at 10:10.

As with Symphony No. 1, Martinon’s slow movement is faster than Fischer’s, here 9:05 against Fischer’s 10:14. Again, I find Martinon’s tempo more convincing, the opening and main theme more welcoming, a warm act of homage from the outset. His minor material is starker, though he too finds the triplet semiquavers awkward. His transformed theme is more carefree.

The Allegro vivace Scherzo features chirpy interchange at close quarters between flute and oboe on one side and largely violins on the other. In the Trio the oboe leads a melody a touch more refined and extended while the strings get more involved in the second strain. Play this to someone and ask who the composer is; the most likely answer would be Haydn. Saint-SaŽns’ orchestral thickening from ideal string quartet material makes it cheekier and less elegant. I prefer Fischer’s approach in this movement to Martinon’s as it generally favours a lighter, chamber music like, texture, where Martinon likes a firm string bass to offset the bright woodwind. This approach makes the Trio less distinctive.

Lightness is the watchword of the Allegro molto finale (tr. 22) as it begins with very soft, Mendelssohnian gossamery violins and violas’ quaver runs topped by oboes and flutes. Where’s a theme? Something, only soft, emerges sketchily from the first violins at 0:30 and is eagerly taken up by bassoon, then gradually all the woodwind. The composer coming to mind now is Rossini, but Saint-SaŽns trying to mix in something of Beethoven in the loud tuttis is too peremptory and jarring: Rossini builds his climaxes gradually. The development (2:00) is more purposeful with anticipation of a culmination. The fairy voices of the woodwind become more distinct with solos from all its members. Finally, oboe and bassoon, moderately loud, offer a robust melody (2:37), think football supporters in praise of their team. Approaching its climax Saint-SaŽns asks the oboe, but not bassoon, to decorate with a turn. OTT, but wonderful and a tune worth more of an outing; instead Saint-SaŽns tries for Beethovenian tuttis again with the same amorphous effect as before. The build-up of the Presto coda is better and makes for a jolly end.

Martinon’s strings are less feathery, but he brings more of a sense of vibrant activity from the orchestra taken as a whole. You’ll barely notice that sketchy theme that Fischer reveals but, as in the first movement, Martinon’s treatment of the Beethovenian material demands it to be heard. His robust theme is more aloof than Fischer’s and his oboe’s turn is a disappointment, but Martinon’s coda is more exciting.

I started by wondering if this CD’s couplings would enhance appreciation of Saint-SaŽns’ range. I don’t really think so, however, more importantly, Symphony No. 1 is revealed as a work worthy of more performances - but not the Symphony in A major. My verdict, here, is Saint-SaŽns was right not to trouble us with his learning process. But you may, of course, be fascinated by this evidence that becoming a composer isn’t easy, especially finding your own voice, but Saint-SaŽns does sometimes here and differently according to your recording choice.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review: Marc Rochester

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