SAINT-SAENS: Organ Symphony; Carnival of the Animals – Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/ Antonio Pappano – Warner

SAINT-SAENS: Symphony No. 3 in c minor, Op. 78 “Organ”; Carnival of the Animals – Daniele Rossi, organ/ Martha Argerich and Antonio Pappano, pianos/ Annie Dutoit, narrator/ Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/ Antonio Pappano – Warner Classics 0190295755553, 61:36 (11/3/17) ****: 

Antonio Pappano and Martha Argerich collaborate for mighty and mischievous Saint-Saens in great sound.

Recorded 4, 7-9 April and 19-20 November 2016, these two familiar works of Camille Saint-Saens appear together because of their shared paternity in time, in the late spring of 1886. Commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society, the Organ Symphony reminds us of Saint-Saens’ position as organist at La Madeleine in Paris. Following Liszt (and Schubert), Saint-Saens connects his cyclical composition as two movements, each subdivided into two of their own, evolving through the “transformational” process Liszt utilizes in his tone-poems and piano sonata. The influence of both the sequence Dies Irae and the opening of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony infiltrates the first movement.  The low strings of Pappano’s orchestra – in live performance—savor the serpentine lines of the development, colored by brief mottos from the woodwinds and sudden, tutti fortissimos. The brass and tympani sections enjoy their own sonorous contribution to the onrush of churning figures that mark the Allegro moderato.   The organ itself appears in only two of the four movements, and its presence seems secondary to the part that the piano has in the course of the music.

In the serene Adagio, the organ gently accompanies winds and strings. The pizzicato and hymnal melody in tandem outline haunted, almost ecstatic elements of the Dies Irae.  This movement, barely interrupted by an appoggiatura figure, dies away, morendo. Pappano then urges the music forward with the fluttering, shimmering  Allegro moderato – Presto third movement, where fragments of the motto theme soon merge into dazzling scalar passages from the solo piano. Highly chromatic, the progression leads to a fanfare and another moment of diaphanous, lyrical repose. Maestoso, the organ announces its share of the sonic grandeur, along with the strings and keyboard, under four hands. Saint-Saens employs his strong sense of counterpoint after the announcement of the final, martial Allegro, rife with trombones and cymbals, in which the previous motto will return – a la Beethoven’s Fifth – in resplendent force. The warmth of the performance impresses me, given my penchant for the “stereo spectaculars” of more objective, hard patina from conductors Munch and Karajan.

On holiday in Austria, Saint-Saens had taken a hiatus from his work on the c minor Symphony to composer a cello piece, Le Cygne, for friend Charles-Joseph Lebouc. Then, Saint-Saens decided to expand the “bestiary” concept to a full “grande fantasie zoologique” that mocked various musical styles and composers. Having made provision that the full score would not be published until after his death, Saint-Saens’ wish was respected until February 25, 1922, when it had its public premiere.

Conceived for an ensemble of eleven players, the clever music utilizes any number of effects to bring before us the familiar menagerie.  The roar of the lion invokes fanfares from pianos and low strings. The pianos, strings, and two-plus bars of clarinet characterize the hens and roosters. The tortoises parody the Offenbach can-can from Orpheus in the Underworld.  Raucous double basses mock the Sylphs’ Dance from Berlioz, even while intoning a raspberry at Mendelssohn. The pianos jump and muse in jerky motion for kangaroos. A marvelous entry, Aquarium, moves in piano, una corda, in mesmerizing arabesques over string pedal.   The “Persons of Long Ears” likely ridicules music critics—in this case, jackasses—in much the same fashion as Richard Strauss in Ein Heledenleben. The clarinet from afar calls the Cuckoo to our attention, while the Voliere (Aviary) asks a virtuoso flute to soar above us, in advance of Spielberg’s pterodactyls.  Perhaps the saddest beasts, confined to domestic routine, are the Pianistes, who run through drudgery scales in C, D-flat, D, and E-flat.  A moment of self-parody occurs in Fossils, in which Saint-Saens parodies his Danse macabre and a moment from Rossini.  Cellist Gabriele Geminiani plies the ever-lovely The Swan, ardently supported by pianos Argerich and Pappano. You can well bet this one sequence will make its way as filler for many a radio station. The grand Final, luxurious with our motley creatures, reminds us how much Saint-Saens could delight us as well as astonish with his massive, color arsenal.

The album claims that the spoken text—by Francis Blanche and narrated by Annie Dutiot—can be accessed by downloading a code, but I could not find it.

–Gary Lemco

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