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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No 1 in E-flat major, Op 2 (1852) [33:41]
Symphony No 2 in A minor, Op 55 (1859) [23:00]
Phaťton – symphonic poem, Op 39 (1873) [9:25]
Symphony No 3 'Organ' in C minor, Op 78 (1886) [36:50]
Symphony in A major (c.1850) [26:30]
Le rouet d'Omphale, Op 31 (1871) [8:19]
Symphony 'Urbs Roma' in F major (1856) [41:40]
La jeunesse d'Hercule, Op 50 (1877) [18:27]
Danse macabre, Op 40 (1874) [7:18]
Carl Adam LandstrŲm (organ)
MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra/Marc Soustrot
rec. 2013, MalmŲ Concert Hall, Sweden
NAXOS 8.503301 [3 CDs: 205:11]

This set neatly brings together the five symphonies and four symphonic poems by Saint-SaŽns, from the two symphonies that he wrote in his teens to the familiar Organ Symphony written in his 51st year. They were previously issued as separate discs (review ~ review ~ review) and now appear in one box; the packaging is essentially the three disc boxes in a cardboard sleeve displaying part of Monet's La Gare Saint-Lazare, painted in the year that Saint-SaŽns wrote La jeunesse d'Hercule. Previous reviews have covered the contents very effectively and as I have no listening history of this repertoire - even the third Symphony is a work I have only occasionally heard - I shall cover a few of the highlights that this very attractive set affords.

The two symphonies from his teens show how fast his development was in a short time; the official first symphony is much more assured than the earlier Symphony in A. In the latter's Mozart influenced first movement I am very aware of the Jupiter Symphony's familiar main theme ringing out periodically and pleasant though the music is, especially the agile and vivacious finale, it is mostly the influences that one is aware of. This is perhaps true of the first Symphony as well, though Saint-SaŽns is more skillful in hiding the fact and for me the central movements – a beautiful extended adagio and the delightfully country-dance Marche-scherzo - are a joy.

There is as large a leap forward to the second Symphony with its taut, well-constructed fugal opening movement, its concise inner movements, a melancholy adagio and heavyweight Scherzo and thrilling tarantella finale. A lovely individual touch is the short andantino, ever so delicately scored for strings, that briefly holds the tarantella in abeyance before the flood gates open and the movement comes to a brilliant end. Saint-SaŽns graduates the dynamics and scoring of the scherzo skillfully so that it matches the mood of the finale that follows it.

Perhaps his Urbs Roma should not be called Symphony? After all the competition it was written for specifically asked for the submitted work to be titled Urbs Roma and not symphony; I have no research to tell me what the other entries were – were they also symphonies in all but name? Whatever the case this was not published during Saint-SaŽns lifetime presumably so as not to draw attention away from his Second Symphony which he considered superior. I am inclined to agree; the first movement has a promising start with its opening brass fanfares but outstays its welcome somewhat. There are interesting elements in the molto vivace second movement including the interplay of woodwind and strings and the scurrying second section with its amusing introduction. The third movement has elements of a funeral march and even though it is contrasted with lighter music it still seems lengthy. The final movement almost deserves playing out of context and would possibly have a wider audience in that guise. This is a wonderful theme and variations that shows off the skill and imagination that Saint-SaŽns had at his command; one could believe that this was from the pen of a more mature composer than the other movements.

The third symphony needs little by way of introduction. Its marvellous and colourful orchestration, its drama and melodiousness have all made it a popular choice on concert programmes. Marc Soustrot and his MalmŲ orchestra play it with great conviction and it takes its place comfortably at the head of these five symphonies. Some of the skill at orchestration displayed in the symphony is due in part to the compositional experience he had after writing his second symphony and the four symphonic poemes that are included here are a big part of that. Danse Macabre, the third of these has overshadowed its companions and it may be that Saint-SaŽns' imagination was fired up by the diabolic subject in much the same way as Liszt was fired by tales of the devil – Faust, Totentanz and the many Mephisto works; it is no surprise that of the four Danse macabre was the one Liszt chose to transcribe for piano. The others do not grab the imagination so readily but there is much to admire in them. Of the two detailing the events of Hercules' life it is Le rouet d'Omphale that is the more memorable with the endless spinning forming a backdrop to Hercules' time of servitude to the Lydian Queen Omphale. In La jeunesse d'Hercule Hercules must choose his path, the easy path of pleasure or the more difficult path of virtue. The contrast between a life of virtue and a life of pleasure isn't brought out that strongly in La jeunesse d'Hercule though the barbaric tarantelle at its heart contains some wonderful music. Oddly although this supposedly represents the path of struggle it could easily be a representation of a debauched bacchanale, the interpretation I assumed until I read the notes. The programme for the earliest of the four, Phaťton is easier to discern. Phaťton the son of Helios, the Sun God, borrows his father's chariot to race across the sky – the galloping horses are clearly heard (I won't ask why horses galloping through the sky can still be heard galloping) and the long lines of the central melody suggest his confidence as all seems to be going well. When it begins to go wrong the opening motif returns but is now transformed with more adventurous harmony and the thunderbolt hurled by Zeus to rescue the day is clearly heard in the huge E-flat major climax. This is certainly the one of the four I shall return to to get to know better.

The MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra under Marc Soustrot play magnficently throughout and I have no hesitation commending this impressive collection to your attention.

Rob Challinor



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