Saint-Saëns gave as good as he got

As his life-long battle with anything remotely smelling of new proved again and again Camille Saint-Saëns gave as good as he got. He labeled Stravinsky, Debussy, and several members of Les Six candidates for the nuthouse. Considering that he was born and musically educated in an era in which Adam, Auber, Rossini, Berlioz, Franck, Bizet, Gounod, and Halévy dominated the Parisian music scene during several decades, he must be forgiven for his frequent bouts of grumpiness.

Further acknowledging that he lived for 85 years through the rise of Fauré, Liszt, and Wagner (all of whom he enthusiastically admired) and into the third decade of the 20th century, it is nothing short of admirable that Saint-Saëns slowly earned the reputation of grey eminence in the cut-throat world of classical music throughout the changing times in which he composed.

NAXOS has released a splendidly packaged, annotated and engineered three-CD box set that includes all five symphonies of Saint-Saëns along with the symphonic poems Le rouet d’Ompahle, La jeunesse d’Hercule, and Phaéton – all three richly orchestrated compositions inspired by Greek myths, and the ever present Danse Macabre.

Of the five symphonies included in the set, the youthful work Symphony No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 2 keeps company with the Symphony No. 2 in A minor, Op. 55 – a work written but seven years after already evidencing a mature technique and style.

By the time the massively-orchestrated 1886 “Organ” Symphony came around the composer was in full command of his art and craft, influenced by but not imitative of Wagner. The lesser-known 1856 Urbs Roma and the equally off-the-beaten path 1850 A major Symphony both show all the earmarks of the Saint-Saëns many love and admire, including a knack for the dramatic gesture that reminds listeners of his uncanny gifts as a gifted composer for the lyric stage.

Marc Soustrot leads the impeccably accomplished musicians of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra with an elegant balance of panache and rigorous attention to balance and detail, partnering to perfection the very fine organist Carl Adam Landström in the final movement of the C minor symphony and violinist Marika Faltskogh, dazzling in the Danse Macabre.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS