SAINT-SAENS: Symphony No. 2 in A minor, Op. 55; Danse macabre, Op. 40; Symphony in F Major “Urbs Roma” (1856) – Utah Symphony/ Thierry Fischer – Hyperion CDA68212, 72:42 (5/3/19) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:
Saint-Saens composed his Second Symphony 1858-1859, a work that synthesizes a strong sense of formal structure with inspirational elan. The first movement, Allegro marcato – Allegro appassionato, exploits a string motif of falling and rising thirds – a Brahms strategy – that likewise juxtaposes tonic and dominant harmonies. After a brief introduction, the music engages in a full scale fugue, quite a “learned” innovation that may have well shocked the Paris audience of 1860. I recall having heard Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic from Carnegie Hall investing this section with particular frenzy. Thierry exalts its hustling transparency and lightness that brings forth a melodic charm. The second movement, Adagio, sings in E Major, opening simply on a single bass note and daintily progressing in the manner of a salon gavotte. Saint-Saens here seems heir-apparent to Lully, but in a decidedly Romantic milieu. Elastic vigor characterizes the Scherzo: Presto, stormy and dramatic, with a central, syncopated section in A Major. The Utah oboe, horns and tympani light up the accents in this energetic movement, with its bubbly shades of both Haydn and Mendelssohn. The opening figures do not return for a da capo: instead, we have two distinct affects. The final movement extends the influence of Haydn one step further, here in a rush exuberance. Saint-Saens disrupts the four-bar phrases with a sense of an underlying tarantella, with some brilliant trumpet work. The woodwinds unabashed quote Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, yet the music retains its fervent and boisterous sense of originality. A pregnant section for muted strings proves captivating, and the music seems headed, with wind accompaniment to the ballet stage. Then the fluttering strings regain their impetus, then tutti, to the romp that marks a militant, punctuated coda.
In 1873 Saint-Saens wrote a song, “Danse macabre,” to words by Henri Cazalis that the composer decided to orchestrate in 1874. He employs a solo violin (Madeline Adkins) to intone Death’s cheerful glee, while various permutations of the Dies Irae proceed by way violin, full orchestra, and xylophone. The skeletons of the graveyard have their evening of revelry, achieving an eerie melodiousness and pageantry we recall from Berlioz, especially his Symphonie fantastique. Saint-Saens utilizes his gift for counterpoint most explosively until dawn breaks in the form of the oboe’s morning cockerel, and thus the morbid assembly disperses, the main scale’s evaporating into morning mist.
The F Major “Urbs Roma” Symphony received its premiere in 1857, the work’s having been written for a competition held by the Societe Sainte Cecile de Bourdeaux. The composer suppressed the work, and it emerged only in 1974, mostly through the efforts of Jean Martinon. The opening Largo – Allegro has an expansive sense of grand lyricism, but the harmonic motion in 6/4 seems forced, wrenching a D-flat chord to serve as a bridge for transition. A barrage of Mannheim rockets moves the development section, with an occasional, woodwind and string melodic fragment tossed in. If D-flat occupies our interest by virtue of its longevity, the sudden twist back to F Major feels artificial, a maneuver to confirm Classical procedure.
The second movement, Molto vivace, possesses its own flurried momentum, rife with trills and ornamented thirds. Some of the militancy might suggest pomp-laden moments in Rimsky-Korsakov. The middle section enjoys some light banter in the woodwinds and antiphonal strings, quite elegant in the hands of the Utah players. The transparency of writing occasionally borrows from Berlioz, say, from his Menuet of the Will o’ the Wisps. The Moderato, assai serioso third movement reaches to F minor for its somber dignity. The bass line likes to slide and trill as it progresses against the winds. Serving as the heart of the symphony, however, the funereal music lacks maturity and economy of means, becoming a nostalgic waltz that verges on sentimentality, only to return with added gusto – and redundancy – to the mortal storm. For his finale, Saint-Saens opts for a Poco allegretto – Andante con moto theme and seven variations. The minuet status of the theme remains understated, more balletic than “symphonic.” The fifth variant in F minor recalls the slow movement, and the sixth variant indulges in the 5/4 meter we have come to admire in Tchaikovsky. While the melodic and harmonic writing wins our admiration for the scoring and its inventive lyricism, the movement eschews any sense of the urgent or the heroic. It’s all frightfully clever and erudite as orchestration, and Thierry and his Utah band play it with conviction, but whether they sell it as powerful, French symphonic fare becomes a matter of opinion.