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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Symphony in A Major (ca. 1850)
Symphony No. 1 in E-Flat Major, Opus 2 (1853)
Symphony No. 2 in a minor, Opus 55 (1859)
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de LiŤge/Jean-Jacques Kantorow
rec. April and December 2019, and October 2020, Salle Philharmonique, LiŤge, Belgium
Reviewed as downloaded with pdf booklet from eclassical.com
BIS RECORDS BIS-2460 SACD [75:36]

Camille Saint-SaŽns, a Frenchman, enjoyed one of the longest and most illustrious careers in music history. He lived for 86 years, and is considered one of the most talented child-prodigies to have ever lived. (Harold C. Schonberg, a published music historian as well as a former music journalist for the New York Times, considered Saint-SaŽns’ prodigious gifts to be superior even to Mozart’s.) Not surprisingly for a child prodigy, Saint-SaŽns was well-known in the music community even before the end of his teen years.

His long life-span at this precise point in history has ultimately made Saint-SaŽns something of a conundrum in relation to his fellow composers. Early in his career, he was enthusiastically supportive of the latest music, including the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, as well as the early operas of Richard Wagner and the programmatic symphonic poems of Franz Liszt.

As the years went by, however, he began developing a belief that there needed to be an identifiable school of French composition to offset the overriding influence that Wagner’s post-Tristan free tonality was having on numerous of European composers. As a result, during the latter part of the 19th Century, he began adopting a more conservative standpoint, and came to be viewed as one of the spokesmen for the “traditionalists” (as opposed to the Wagnerian-minded “progressives”).

Especially with the appearance of such “shocking” pieces as Richard Strauss’ Salome, Saint-SaŽns could be counted on to issue public statements such as this one: “I would say that when they try to get works of art out of the realm of art, it means getting them into the realm of madness. Richard Strauss is now showing us the way.” Upon hearing Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps for the first time, Saint-SaŽns expressed the firm opinion that Stravinsky was “clearly insane”.

So he started his musical career being aligned with the cutting-edge modernists (as they were seen at the time), and wound up, in the end, decrying the damage, as he saw it, that the 20th-Century modernists were then doing to his beloved art form.

Saint-SaŽns was a highly-skilled compositional artisan in numerous genres, equally at ease with chamber or larger-scale orchestra music. His orchestral compositions include several piano concerti, symphonic poems (such as Danse Macabre), operas (including Samson et Dalila), and symphonies, of which the most famous is his 3rd Symphony, the “Organ” Symphony.

On this album, Jean-Jacques Kantorow and the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de LiŤge have given us three of Saint-SaŽns’ five symphonies, the 1st and 2nd Symphonies, and the “Symphony in A Major”. (The two remaining symphonies are scheduled for release by the same performers less than a month after this review’s writing.) BIS Records offers the album as a hybrid SACD or as a download in multiple available formats. For this review, I listened to the multi-channel surround sound download.

The three symphonies here were all written within ten years of each other, as can be seen in the review header information at the top of this review. Saint-SaŽns, while clearly an excellent musical craftsman, suffered from the same malady that often afflicts child prodigies, that being a staunchly conservative style in writing. As talented as he was, Saint-SaŽns cannot be considered an innovator on the level of a Beethoven, a Wagner, or a Stravinsky by any means. Indeed, it is sadly rare for any child prodigy who begins their public life while still in their childhood to have any sort of pioneering influence on the development of musical composition.

These three symphonies are no exception. As I was listening, there were numerous moments where the thought occurred to me that, “This sounds like Mendelssohn”, or “That sounds like Schumann,” or even, “This reminds me of Beethoven”. That does not mean, however, that they are not enjoyable to listen to, by any means.

None of this is to be taken as critical of Saint-SaŽns’ music in any way; it is only illustrative of the conservative nature of his writing. There are an equal number of moments that are just as striking for their melodic/expressive beauty or for excitingly un-bridled energy (on a Mendelssohnian level, not a Mahlerian level, just to be clear). Like Mendelssohn before him, Saint-SaŽns had a gift for melody, and knew how to build formal structures that are easy to follow and that make the most of his thematic/melodic material.

There are also plenty of sections, for example, where I noticed the woodwinds playing passages with finger-work and articulative skills that would make excellent material for an orchestra audition. The rest of the orchestra has to do a fair amount of hard work as well, so there are plenty of virtuosic, exciting moments in these symphonies. While not offering the same level of deep profundity as one might find in a Mahler symphony or a Richard Strauss opera, this music is, nevertheless, quite enjoyable and, in the hands of the right performers, just plain fun to listen to.

I have to say that, in the case of Jean-Jacque Kantorow and the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de LiŤge, this music is most assuredly in the right hands. The orchestra’s skill and polish is exemplary, with the woodwinds especially acquitting themselves most impressively in the passages I previously mentioned as making good orchestra audition material.

As is always the case in my experience with BIS Records, the engineering and sound-quality are flawless, and give us the best seat in the house. Recorded in the Salle Philharmonique, the orchestra’s home venue, and the same location where John Neschling recorded several excellent Respighi albums with the same orchestra on previous occasions (also on BIS Records), Saint-SaŽns’ music is given what seems to be the best possible presentation. The booklet notes, by Jean-Pascal Vachon, give us an enjoyably characterized historical background for these three symphonies as well as providing a well-informed analytical discussion of the music’s structure.

If you are looking to expand your selections of Saint-SaŽns’ music in your library, then this album would be an excellent step in accomplishing that.

David Phipps



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