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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Symphony in F, “Urbs Roma” (1856) [39:11]
Symphony No 3 in C minor, Op 78, “Organ Symphony” (1886) [34:37)
Thierry Escaich (organ)
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de LiŤge/Jean-Jacuqes Kantorow
Rec. April & October 2020, Salle Philharmonique, LiŤge, Belgium
BIS BIS-2470 SACD [74:24]

I’m so pleased that the Saint-SaŽns centenary has brought so many good new recordings of his music, including a lot of work that hasn’t really been before the public so far. He’s such a great composer, often damned by snobby critics who judge him on the basis of the handful of his most popular works. Anyone looking below the surface will see an absolute genius at work, and this recording confirms that this genius was evidence right from the very start of his career.

The youthful “Urbs Roma” symphony isn’t numbered and, for some unaccountable reason, was left off the composer’s own catalogue of his works. Saint-SaŽns wrote it for a competition in Bordeaux in the summer of 1856, intended to act as a springboard for young composers who would otherwise struggle to get their orchestral music before the public. The competition stipulated a format and a keyword theme, and in the case of 1856 this was to be a symphony on the theme of “The City of Rome.” The composer left no clues as to how the Roman theme had found its way into the music, which has left lots of scholars to speculate on how it might show itself in the finished score; and several of those speculations are reproduced in Jean-Pascal Vachon’s helpful booklet note.

Saint-SaŽns won the competition, and it’s easy to see why, because this symphony is a treat; so much so that I’m baffled as to why it isn’t much better known. The most striking thing about it is how fully formed the composer’s melodic gift already was. The symphony positively overflows with wonderful tunes that here sound totally fresh, from the busy first movement with its exciting, vigorous main subjects, to the variations of the finale, which might represent either the varying influences of the Roman Empire or the many composers who had an influence on Saint-SaŽns.

The other remarkable thing about it is how extraordinarily developed the young composer’s sense for orchestration and structure already was, amazingly so when you consider that he wrote the symphony before his twenty-first birthday! The finale’s variations are sculpted with the architectural skill of a composer thirty years his senior, while the counterpoint and structural security of the first movement is extraordinary. There is winning bustle to the second movement scherzo, while the third movement treads a line that’s close to that of a funeral march, but has a little too much kick to accompany mourning.

Jean-Jacques Kantorow and his LiŤge orchestra have already recorded Saint-SaŽns’ other three symphonies (see review). I haven’t heard that disc, but we owe them a debt of gratitude for putting this one before our ears again. They play it beautifully, with perky winds and glowing brass, brought to evocative life in the intimate acoustic of LiŤge’s Salle Philharmonique. Kantorow clearly believes in it completely, because he conducts it with great spirit and genuine conviction.

Their recording of the Organ Symphony can also hold its own in a much more crowded marketplace. In one sense the acoustic really helps: the organ is a part of the texture, sounding clean and clear throughout; but it doesn’t overly dominate, and the orchestral sound is every bit as important, particularly the strings who play with only a discrete amount of vibrato. The violins sound sensational at the start of the slow second movement (if we can call it that), and there is a smile in their sound throughout the serious business of the finale.

Elsewhere, Kantorow shapes the music with thoughtfulness and rigour. There is clear, clean attack in the string semiquavers of the first movement’s main theme, and there is a climactic sense of energy when it returns at the start of the recapitulation. The slow movement pours out in a seamless flow of melody, while the scherzo has good percussive bite, with a quicksilver central section in which the all-important piano sound is clearly present. The hall’s intimate sound means that the acoustic isn’t an opulent one, and if you’re looking for a proper blockbuster then you’d be better to seek out Levine’s Berlin recording, or Barenboim’s hybrid from Paris/Chartres. This is a very good, very different alternative, though. However, a major black mark, and a pet hate of mine, is that they don’t track separately the slow movement: one CD track serves both parts of the symphony’s first half, but the second half gets two tracks so that you can skip straight to the organ’s entry. Hmph!

That’s not enough to make anyone cast this disc aside, though. It’s great playing of super repertoire, and the “Urbs Roma” symphony alone is enough of a reason for it to demand your attention.

Simon Thompson

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