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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Symphony in A major, R159 (1850)
Symphony No 1 in E-flat major, Op 2 (1853)
Symphony No 2 in A minor, Op 55 (1859)
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de LiŤge/Jean-Jacques Kantorow
rec. April and December 2019, and October 2020, Salle Philharmonique, LiŤge, Belgium

Saint-SaŽns’ third symphony, generally known as the Organ Symphony, is one of his best as well as one of his best-known works. It had several predecessors, more than the two you might expect. In fact, there were four of them:
- Symphony in A major (1850), unpublished until 1974
- Symphony No 1 in E-flat major, Op 2 (1853)
- Urbs Roma, not titled a symphony (1856), unpublished until 1974
- Symphony No 2 in A minor, Op 55 (1859), unpublished until 1878

What we have here is three of these four works; Urbs Roma is included on a successor disc, along with the Organ Symphony.

In listening to these works, you need to bear in mind that Saint-SaŽns was a child prodigy almost as remarkable as Mozart and that these works are all early. What struck me immediately in listening to all three was his remarkable fluency and compositional technique. He seems to have entered the world almost fully formed from the start. He wrote the Symphony in A major when he was fifteen, and it was one of his few early works to survive when he destroyed a number of others, mostly unfinished. It was probably written as a student exercise and it certainly demonstrates a formidable technique. It is not so surprising that one is constantly reminded of earlier composers: Haydn often, Beethoven occasionally and also Weber and Schubert. The writer of the very informative sleeve-note says that it suggested a fusion of the German and French schools. However, the composer never published it and it seems not to have been performed until 1974.

Three years later Saint-SaŽns offered a new symphony for performance, but withheld his name and said it had been sent to him from Germany. This was an astute move as it ensured a performance which it would not have got had he submitted it under his own name. Both Berlioz and Gounod praised the unknown composer and when Saint-SaŽns revealed his identity he became friends with both of them. It is, like its predecessor, a derivative work with the scherzo in particular showing the influence of Mendelssohn and the finale that of Beethoven. The slow movement has a beautiful tune, played first on the clarinet and then the flute and the cor anglais, supported by the harp. This was the composer’s first acknowledged symphony.

The next symphony was Urbs Roma, which was performed but withdrawn by the composer. By the time of the acknowledged second symphony Saint-SaŽns had made his reputation, as a performer on the organ and the piano, and as a composer with several works. This second symphony was probably first performed in 1860 but Saint-SaŽns did not publish it until 1878; hence its high opus number. This work uses the cyclic form which became well known in the work of Franck and his disciples, using themes in more than one movement. The first movement is not in sonata form but is a fugue and the finale is a tarantella.

After hearing this symphony Berlioz said that Saint-SaŽns ‘knew everything but lacked inexperience.’ Perhaps what he meant by this was that this work, like its predecessors, is technically very accomplished but oddly unmemorable; it lacks the fire of the of the works he took as models. It is perhaps not surprising that he later condemned his early works and it was twenty-five years before he wrote his last and finest symphony.

The performances here seem thoroughly well prepared and idiomatic. There are other recordings but I doubt whether they can improve on these ones. The recording is very good – this is an SACD but I was listening on ordinary two-channel stereo – and the sleeve note is informative. Anyone wanting to explore early Saint-SaŽns should be well content, and the successor disc with the remaining symphonies should also be worthwhile. However, I should note that there is a set from Naxos with all five symphonies and the four symphonic poems which was much liked by Rob Challinor (review).

Stephen Barber

Previous review: David Phipps

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