Saint-Saëns
Samson et Dalila, Op.47 – Bacchanale
Le rouet d’Omphale, Op.31
Phaëton, Op.39
Danse macabre, Op.40
La Jeunesse d’Hercule, Op.50
Suite algérienne, Op.60 – IV: Marche militaire française
La Princesse jaune, Op.30 – Overture
Une nuit à Lisbonne, Op.63
Spartacus
Marche du couronnement, Op.117
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Neeme Järvi

Recorded 14 & 15 September 2011 in Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5104
Duration: 78 minutes
Reviewed: June 2012
We’re thrown straight into an exotic, sultry and, indeed, bacchanalian world with the Samson and Delilah excerpt here given an exhilarating outing (with quiet timpani figures justly caught in the spacious, warm and vivid recording).
It’s an ear-catching beginning to a super release, a generous selection of pieces by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), a splendid composer who wrote far more than the few pieces (such as Carnival of the Animals, Third Symphony and Second Piano Concerto) that keep his name alive. And he was rather more than an inventive and innovative composer, too, for he was a masterly pianist and organist; and his talents spread outside of music, for the much-travelled Saint-Saëns also excelled in astrology and science, as a playwright, and in philosophy and poetry.
In this outstanding and generous Chandos release, Neeme Järvi and the excellent and fully responsive RSNO give us many varied and delightful treats – some familiar, some not, but each is welcome and different.
Following the hedonistic opening piece, Le rouet d’Omphale follows and is lightly spun as befits the music until darker threads appear and are made suitably ominous. Phaëton is commanding is in its driving rhythms that suits a stormy scenario. The familiar Danse macabre is always a winner and here receives an affectionate performance. Maybe Maya Iwabuchi slightly over-presses her violin solos, but then this story is set in a churchyard at the midnight hour...
Hercules’s virtuous qualities (although he is certainly tested!) are sounded with much atmospheric description: as good as Liszt wrote in any of his symphonic poems. (The French master greatly admired his Hungarian counterpart.) In contrast – and that’s a significant word to describe Saint-Saëns’s output – the Marche militaire française is a swaggering gem; champagne-bubbling music to lighten your life. Järvi captures some deliciously quiet playing during it, and is then hypnotically exotic with the enticing Overture to The Yellow Princess (how does a marvellous piece like this, which Charles Munch recorded, get so overlooked – at least Chandos has a complete recording of the opera on its books); later briskness from the conductor does not harm the music’s merry oriental pranks, Järvi a dab hand at placing accents just-so and building the temperature for a brassy conclusion.
A Night in Lisbon is from the composer’s first-hand experience; a delightful nocturne with starlit textures. Spartacus (1863 although not published in the composer’s lifetime) is the real rarity here, a full-scale work of power and passion, somewhat reminding of, and anticipating, Dvořák’s Othello Overture. Finally to the United Kingdom for the Coronation March that Saint-Saëns composed in 1902 for Edward VII’s crowning, and with it the composer received the Cross of the Victorian Order (Third Class). Roger Nichols’s booklet note contains much enlightenment. The ebullient March is full of pomp leavened by lyricism. Ceremonial bells ring out in the grandiose coda – yes, a medal-winner!
The performances are first-class in their brio, sympathy and sensitivity, Ralph Couzens's sound is top-drawer (audiophiles will be drooling), and the music consistently skilled (both in invention and scoring), enjoyable and memorable. This is a superb release on every count.

 

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