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SAINT-SAENS: Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 “Organ”; Trois tableaux symphoniques après La foi, Op. 130; Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila, Op. 47 – Paul Jacobs, organ/ Utah Symphony Orchestra/ Thierry Fischer – Hyperion CDA68201, 75:15 (12/28/18)  [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Recorded 1-2 December 2017, this collation of music by Camille Saint-Saens (18351921) marks the first in a complete symphony-cycle from Utah, which features orchestral works that have suffered inexplicable neglect, like the expansive incidental music for Eugene Brieux’s five-act play La foi (The Faith) of 1909.  Set in upper Egypt during the time of the Middle Kingdom, the venue allows Saint-Saens to experiment with exotic colors in askew, diatonic combinations. Music in D Major permits visitations from G-sharps and B-flat. The three tableaux evoke languor and canny delicacy, a kind of desert-song quality that might have made excellent atmosphere for The Garden of Allah. The second movement, Andantino (San lenteur) conveys a mysterious, unearthly beauty, first through woodwinds, then via harp and low strings and muffled percussion.  Some harmonies of the latter portion will certainly echo aspects of the melodic character of the Fifth Piano Concerto. The third tableau, Allegro moderato e maestoso, casts a martial glow, not so far in melodic spirit from Rimsky-Korsakov.  Some “Wagnerian” elements appear in the brass and tremolo strings, perhaps—a la Tannhauser—a combat between impulses sacred and profane. The new melody that emerges has, for want of a better term, a “girth” in the manner of Cesar Franck. This powerful melody manages to proceed to a grandly somber C minor until it unfolds into a luminous, chorale epic in C Major.

Portrait of Camille Saint-Saëns, by Pierre Petit, 1900

Camille Saint-Saëns,
by Pierre Petit, 1900

The opera Samson et Dalila (1877) has a third act Bacchanale at the temple of Dagon that revels in exotic colors, making a perennial favorite of that conductor of brilliant “lollipops,” Sir Thomas Beecham. Using augmented seconds and especial color from the cymbals and kettledrums, the weaving, snaky melody rises up in the manner of a charmed rope from an open vessel, assaulted by heavy, obstinate rhythms. The middle section recalls the sensuality of the Samson and Delilah romance, and so Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature are not far away.  Fischer and the Utah players whip up the fiery mix into a syrupy, vibrant divertissement that rumbles at the coda with “elephantine” weight.

The Saint-Saens Third Symphony (1886) at once pays homage to Schubert and Liszt, respectively: to the former by melodic and rhythmic contour; to the latter by virtue of the two-movement structure subdivided into two parts. The organ part and the infiltration of rising sequences nod to Liszt of the symphonic poem Slaughter of the Huns. The “transformation of theme” technique borrows much from both predecessors, given the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy and the B minor Sonata. The presence of the Dies Irae certainly can claim the Totentanz with as much legitimacy as anything in Rachmaninov.  Recording Engineer and Producer Tim Handley delvers a lushly warm, resonant performance of this mighty symphony, whose organ part explodes into a triumphant, Bach-influenced C Major at the finale.  We recall that, when RCA put forth the Charles Munch performance, they hyped the disc as a “stereo spectacular.”  No hype here, just an orchestral colossus.

—Gary Lemco

More information and track samples at Hyperion website:

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