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CD Review

Camille Saint-Saëns

Naxos 8.573140

Symphonies, Volume 3

  • Symphony in F major "Urbs Roma" (1856)
  • La jeunesse d'Hercule, Op. 50 (1877)
  • Danse macabre, Op. 40 (1874) *
* Marika Fältskogh, violin (concertmaster)
Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Marc Soustrot
Naxos 8.573140 67:25
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In my Saint-Saëns Third symphony review posted in June, this year (Naxos 8.573139), I wrote the following: "This is the second and final volume in Marc Soustrot's cycle of the symphonies of Camille Saint-Saëns." Well, it turns out that it was the last disc devoted to the "numbered" symphonies. I was unaware that Naxos intended to record all his symphonies, including this 1856 effort, from the composer's twenty-first year – the Symphony in F major, subtitled Urbs Roma. I should have suspected as much since the disc of the Third Symphony contained an even earlier work, the Symphony in A major, written when Saint-Saëns was around fifteen.

At any rate the F major Symphony was originally titled merely Urbs Roma (Latin, for City of Rome) in order to comply with the rules of a competition in which the composer was entering the work. The rules of that competition appear a little sketchy now but it seems a conventionally named symphony was not allowed. Thus, nowhere in the title did Saint-Saëns use the word symphony. Although he won the competition and the work was played several times early on, it rather quickly faded and became forgotten. Moreover, its score was never published in the composer's lifetime. The work is still a rarity in the concert hall as well as on recordings: I note that there are currently just two other available recordings. Thus, those interested in this piece are urged to snatch this up without hesitation as it is quite a fine account.

The music is well crafted but actually sounds little like mature Saint-Saëns. Cast in four movements, it is the longest of his symphonies with a duration exceeding forty minutes here. Certain passages call to mind Schumann and occasionally even Beethoven. Perhaps too there are a few snatches of Berlioz in the score too. The first, third and fourth movements are all in the eleven to twelve minute-plus range, while the Scherzo second movement is about half their length. The music is mostly serious, especially the third movement, which is a funeral march, but one whose grimness is tempered a bit by a suave sense of flow. While the outer panels are serious as well, there are brighter moods in much of the thematic material and also a celebratory character at times: note the horn fanfares in the first movement and the music's generally epic sense. The Scherzo is both playful and humorous, and is the most colorfully orchestrated movement. The finale begins with a solemn sort of stately theme that is then treated to six variations, the moods generally remaining bright. If the symphony has a weakness it is that it has a slightly generic character, a sense that the music needs more spirit, more character definition. That said, it's a mostly pleasant piece with some attractive themes and snappy rhythms. The performance that Marc Soustrot draws from the Malmö Symphony Orchestra is splendid and fully committed in every way.

The fillers here will have some interest for most listeners. La jeunesse d'Hercule (The Youth of Hercules) is the last of four tone poems written by Saint-Saëns. It is an assured work, from its thematic material and deft depiction of mythological events to its structure and colorful orchestration. At over eighteen minutes it's quite a substantial bonus. The ever popular Danse macabre, brief though it is, also makes a splendid addition. Soustrot and company deliver truly spirited performances of both these pieces, and the solo violinist in Danse macabre, Marika Fältskogh, turns in fine work.

Naxos offers excellent sound reproduction throughout the disc and the dependable Keith Anderson provides very informative notes. This is certainly a disc that Saint-Saëns' admirers will find most enjoyable. Recommended.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings