SAINT-SAENS: Complete Symphonies = Symphony in A Major; Symphony No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 2; Symphony No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 55; Symphony in F Major “Urbs Roma”; Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78 “Organ” – Bernard Gavoty, organ/ Orchestre de l’ORTF/ Jean Martinon – Brilliant Classics 94360 (2 CDs), 79:05; 77:15 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Jean Martinon (1910-1976) made a reputation for his mastery of Gallic repertory, and his inscriptions, 1972-1975, of the complete Saint-Saens symphonies (originally for EMI) remains a classic of its kind. The Symphony in A Major (c. 1850) testifies to an extraordinary talent in a composer fifteen years of age. The orchestral parts, copied from manuscripts preserved at he Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, proved an arduous expense. The sunny first movement combines Mozart’s clarity with Mendelssohn’s energetic disposition. The sense of classical form would come to dominate the Saint-Saens persona. The songful Andantino “suffers” from a surfeit of ideas and rambles ever so melodiously, bucolic and lyrical, featuring some fluttery work for the woodwinds. Flute, oboe, and strings collaborate for the Scherzo: Vivace, a light-hearted frolic tinged with counterpoint we could easily ascribe to young Bizet. The deftly scurrying figures of the Finale: Allegro molto invoke more Mendelssohn of the Midsummer Night’s Dream variety. The ORTF strings and winds move in diaphanous harmony throughout, silken in execution and peerless in instrumental finesse.
A new, dramatic urgency informs the Symphony No. 1 in E-flat Major of 1853. The model here, Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, adds a militant luster to the first movement scoring, especially as the French horn plays against the luminous strings. The ensuing trumpet work from the ORTF quite equals anything the Chicago Symphony under this same conductor could have launched at us. The fluent melodic line over the tympani carries us with martial nobility and grace entirely beguiling right to the coda, a restatement of the theme in heroic periods akin to Liszt. The wonderful Marche-Scherzo canters with magical charm, a feast of delicate instrumentation and canny, polyphonic harmonies. Again, the combination suggests Mendelssohn and Bizet at once, but refined with a mastery quite disarming from an eighteen-year-old. Saint-Saens turns to E Major for the extended Adagio, a clear imitation of Un Ball of Berlioz, at least at first. Strings and added harp prove incandescently balletic-operatic. The Finale: Allegro maestoso might owe debts to the Berlioz Op. 15, his Funeral and Triumphal Symphony, particularly in its latter mode. Added harps, saxophones, bass clarinets, cymbals, and cornets concoct a lavishly grand brew that still manages to sail luxuriantly in a manner both lyrical and learned in its contrapuntal ambitions.
The 1859 Symphony No. 2 in A Minor, often championed by Mitropoulos, opens by insisting on the composer’s contrapuntal mastery, the tumultuous Allegro appassionato theme in thirds rising and falling against itself in various choir groupings. Martinon exerts a taut line on the proceedings, which flow in inspired periods through the chirping woodwinds and strings in those few episodes of relative tranquility. The Adagio in this work, a sweet song in E Major, provides a brief, calm relief against its successors, a vigorous, metrically audacious Scherzo (and Trio in A Major) and a frantic tarantella, Prestissimo. The virtuosity of the last movement, airy and debonair, certainly aligns Saint-Saens with Mendelssohn of the Italian Symphony, the music less authentically passionate than brilliantly colorful.
The so-called “Urbs Roma” Symphony in F Major (1856) the composer suppressed, despite early, prize-winning successes in Bordeaux and Paris. The symphony, ironically, proves the longest of any Saint-Saens symphony, its appellation meant to convey “The City of Rome,” set in the jubilant first movement as a cyclical pattern that adumbrates the Franck Symphony of a generation later. The Molto vivace second movement conveys the visceral energy of a festive round dance, buoyant and martially suggestive of later Rimsky-Korsakov. The third movement, marked Moderato assai serioso, bears the epithet “funeral march for the death of an Empire.” A Berlioz pageant emerges, dark and ineluctable, the ORTF basses sonorously dark. The passing moment of light suffers an ominous intrusion whose texture thickens into funereal molasses, set off by mortal tympani. A second, more feathery episode ensues, only to yield to the inevitable, somber march, its last pages a stone’s throw away from Brucknerian harmony. The nostalgic finale: Poco allegretto; Andante con moto assumes the character of a balletic theme and variations, gracefully wistful. Martinon brings out Saint-Saens’ colors in the midst of shifting meters, never sacrificing textural clarity for grandiose effects.
The 1886 Organ Symphony, with its Schubert “Unfinished” opening and its spectacular approach to the Lisztian notion of thematic transformation, sports excellent playing from the entire ORTF brass section, and no mean contribution from the strings and tympani. The Dies Irae has rarely become so lyrically enchanting as it does through Saint-Saens’ scoring, the organ and piano four-hand arpeggios incorporated into a truly symphonic matrix. A fine solemnity permeates the Poco adagio slow movement, a testament to Martinon’s intimately dramatic line. The full spectrum of “gorgeosity made flesh” (to quote Burgess’ Alex) announces itself in apocalyptic or Elysian terms in the splendid hymnody of the last movement chorale, superbly done and deliciously captured by producer Rene Challan.
The historic restorations show a renewed vitality.