SAINT-SAËNS: Symphony in A Major; Symphony No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 2; Symphony No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 55 – Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liege/ Jean-Jacques Kantorow – BIS 260 SACD (May 2021) 75:31 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Collectors endeared to the music of Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) likely recall that the French conductor Jean Martinon (1910-1976) provided us with a sterling introduction to the composer’s symphonic oeuvre via EMI, and how refreshed the scores appeared, especially the relative newcomers to the catalogue. Saint-Saens himself had few French models to serve as inspiration, so he gleaned his formal craft from Berlioz, Gounod, and inevitably the Austrian Mozart, and the Germans, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann.
Now, Jean-Jacques Kantorow (rec. 2019-2020) traverses the Saint-Saens symphonies; and his especial, light touch and emphasis on orchestral detail provide another, refined sheen upon these scores, the “other” symphonies that so often pale in comparison to the Third, the 1884 “Organ” Symphony. The A Major Symphony of 1850, ostensibly a student composition, transcends its academic context by virtue of its economy of means and its natural lyricism, almost an equivalent to the early Schubert style. The Allegro vivace section of movement one enjoys a brisk, hearty energy, with a good ear for instrumental color, especially in the winds. A tender Larghetto, the symphony’s heart, has debts to that from Beethoven’s D Major Symphony. The Scherzo: Allegro vivace has more of Haydn and opera buffa in its clever use of woodwinds and dotted rhythm. The secondary tune hints at Beethoven, especially in the bass line. The Finale: Allegro molto – Presto flutters with Schubert and Mendelssohn’s fairy energy, occasionally asking for a crescendo a la Rossini. Already we encounter the composer’s gift for counterpoint and the fusion of competing themes. A wonder this aerial and genial work had to wait until 1974 for its publication!
My own introduction to the 1853 Symphony No. 1 in E-flat Major came by way of Eliahu Inbal’s 1976 reading with the RSO Frankfurt. When Saint-Saens submitted the symphony to the reading committee of the Saint Cecilia Society, he had to do so anonymously! Charles Gounod congratulated Saint-Saens on the craftsmanship of this well-wrought score. The Beethoven influence in sonata-form has been infiltrated by organ textures, especially in the large pedal points in movement one, Adagio – Allegro. The little miracle in this work arrives in the second movement, marked Marche Scherzo: Allegretto scherzando. Virtually nothing “martial” occurs in this pastoral, which the clarinet introduces as a floating lyric that appeals to the entire spectrum of instruments, easily recalling the magic in Mendelssohn’s treatment of Shakespeare. In sweet counterpoint that bubbles with light inspiration, Saint-Saens fuses his two themes together, the harp’s adding just the right amount of liquid alchemy. A broad Adagio ensues, enriched by Kantorow’s patient devotions. Late in the progression, the harp joins the flute and English horn in attractive harmony. For a grand Finale: Allegro maestoso, Saint-Saens pays his (ostentatious) debt to Berlioz: the size of the ensemble seems to double, with added brass, harps, and timpani; and he launches a march that both Berlioz (in his Op. 15 Funeral and Triumphal Symphony) and Wagner could claim with pride. Then, with echoes of Beethoven’s Eroica, our dear Frenchman inserts a fugue whose contrapuntal riches have gleaned colors from Mendelssohn and organ diapason. More than a mere amalgam of Romantic styles, the music injects its own personality, especially when realized in the shimmering glow provided by Sound Engineer Jens Braun.
For the relatively austerely economical and academic beauties of Saint-Saens’ 1859 Symphony No. 2 in A Minor, I must pay homage to Dimitri Mitropoulos, who led a volatile performance with the New York Philharmonic I heard over WQXR-FM. The work did not see publication until 1878, and it occupies the position of fourth such a composition in the symphony genre, since Saint-Saens suppressed another score, his “Urbs Roma” Symphony of 1856. The potent energy of this contrapuntal score finds means to repeat its themes in the “cyclic” manner dear to Beethoven, Schumann, and Franck. Kantorow moves the Allegro appassionato section of the first movement with dazzling velocity.
Virtually the last three movements might nod to Mendelssohn for their respective affects: a genial, songful Adagio; a jaunty and syncopated Scherzo: Presto, and a whirlwind Prestissimo last movement, a virtuoso tarantella after Mendelssohn’s own Mediterranean heart. A lusty and witty conclusion to a most satisfying survey of that Frenchman who wrote music “as an apple tree produces apples.”