Africa – Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra
Parysatis – Airs de ballet
La jota aragonese
Samson et Dalila – Grand Fantasy [arr. Luigini]
Tarantelle for Flute, Clarinet and Orchestra
Sarabande et Rigaudon
Danse macabre [Original Version for Tenor and Orchestra]
Suite algérienne – Marche militaire française
La muse et le poète for Violin, Cello and Orchestra
Ascanio – Valse-Finale
Gwendolyn Mok (piano)
Susan Milan (flute) & James Campbell (clarinet)
Tina Gruenberg (violin)
Anthony Roden (tenor)
Stephanie Chase (violin) & Robert Truman (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
La Princesse Jaune, Op.30 – Overture
Requiem, Op.54Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78
Tinuke Olafimihan (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (contralto)
Anthony Roden (tenor)
Simon Kirkbride (bass)
The Hertfordshire, Harlow and East London Choruses
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded January and April 1993 in All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London; organ for Symphony No.3 recorded April 1993 in Westminster Cathedral, London
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: June 2007
CD No: CALA CACDS 4031 & CACDS 4032 [separately available: both CD/SACD]
Duration: Both discs play for 78 minutes
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is a remarkably skilled composer whose music should be performed much more frequently, yet listening to this selection of works – particularly the rarer examples – I am amazed at how familiar I found them to be. I seem to have known the melodies of Marche militaire française forever, so too the Overture to “La Princesse Jaune”. Could it be from the days of 78s when 19th-century pieces of music lasting less than 10 minutes were widely available? Recordings of overtures by such composers as Auber, Boieldieu, Hérold, Offenbach, Suppé, Thomas, Rossini and Weber abounded. Nowadays it is inconvenient to put such works on CD (although Richard Bonynge has made a few amends to this situation) but that is not to question their merit.
This is a fascinating selection. Some works betray the fashion of the time – the four-movement suite from Parysatis (unfortunate name – no it is not a disease) represents a Persian story. “La Princesse Jaune” was Japanese so the music is faintly Japanese but of the European variety – we must remember that Arthur Sullivan (a close contemporary of Saint-Saëns) did the same sort of thing. In his informative notes Edward Johnson compares La jota aragonese with the use of the same melody by Glinka and Liszt; Saint-Saëns is no less Spanish in effect. This air of jollity carries on in the delightful Tarantelle for flute, clarinet and orchestra, which is suitably Italian in style for its purpose, and the courtly ‘Valse’ from Ascanio.
Looking critically at this selection of rarer music, the longer works provide a greater challenge. The Africa Fantasy is no more than slightly African and is very rhapsodic. This is though a fine display piece for the pianist with a dramatic minor-key melody as the basis for the opening sequence. The tunefulness of the music welds this sequence of melodies together and the balance of piano against colourful orchestra is very well done – excellent piano detail but the instrument does not overpower the aural scene. The final Tunisian melody is sufficient to justify the title.
The opera “Samson et Dalila” is a well-known title but how many music-lovers have heard any more from it than the orchestral ‘Bacchanale’ and the aria ‘Softly Awakes my Heart’ unless they are very keen opera buffs? Alexandre Luigini – the composer of the wonderfully tuneful Ballet Egyptien (once famously hi-jacked by Wilson, Keppel and Betty for their immortal ‘Sand Dance’) – arranged this extensive Grand Fantasy on melodies from Saint-Saëns’s opera. Luigini here proves to be as skilled an arranger as he is a melodist. His Grand Fantasy comes over as an extensive symphonic poem. Unfamiliarity with Saint-Saëns’s original music might actually be an advantage, especially as the arranger chooses tunes from the opera in the order which most suits their being linked together in quasi-symphonic form, therefore it does not matter that the work begins with the dramatic finale and its grand concluding pages are drawn from Act One.
This version of Danse macabre is very strange. I had not known the origin of the famous orchestral piece of that name. It seems that Saint-Saëns first wrote a voice and piano setting of the poem by Henry Cazalis before orchestrating the accompaniment. This latter is the version recorded here. The grim text is sung (very appropriately) with harsh emphasis. This version lasts barely three minutes but says all it has to say in that time.
Sarabande et Rigaudon, the first with Tina Gruenberg, is in (slightly) ancient style, optimistic in feeling and with imaginative scoring. The Muse and the Poet is the least appealing of the works. It is a sort of rhapsody, a quarter of an hour long, gently melodious but without any discernible shape. There are opportunities for both violin and cello to sound beautiful but much of the work is at a pleasant mezzo-forte. At first it sounds somewhat Elgarian but it soon becomes evident that it lacks any of that composer’s sense of purpose. Saint-Saëns composes decent enough tunes and juxtaposes the instruments against the orchestra well enough but the piece never captured my attention. Oh, very well, I admit it – I fell asleep!
The two major works – the “Requiem” and Symphony No.3 most certainly capture the attention. The “Requiem” begins with an anguished orchestral introduction that moves subtly into a comforting sequence featuring both soloists and chorus. The composer chooses to be threatening in the ‘Dies Irae’: he first uses the voices with quiet menace, following it with the timeless ‘Dies Irae’ melody followed by a most powerful onslaught by the organ. The comforting thing about Saint-Saëns is that he frequently resolves his darker moments into major-keyed optimism at the arrival of the voices. The brief ‘Hostias’ is a gem of calm beauty – the gentle use of harps being an inspired notion. There is much to admire in the scoring – the deep pedal notes of the organ add nobility to the music. The final ‘Agnus Dei’ starts with the same sequence as the opening ‘Kyrie’ but stays in sober mood for far longer. Here the voices do not enter until more than three minutes of rich orchestral music have set the grave mood. Towards the close, the warm weight of the organ is again introduced and the final two minutes are deliberately reverential but also hopeful.
The recorded balance is very well done here on these discs newly re-mastered for SACD. Often soloists and chorus sing in combination and I was very pleased to note that there is no highlighting of individual voices. The acoustic is big and spacious. It is the same throughout both discs and it seems to suit the style of the music very well. Saint-Saëns was a master orchestrator and the instruments reach the ear with naturalness – other music might perhaps require closer focus but Saint-Saëns creates such varied orchestral colours that they benefit from the ample atmosphere that surrounds them.
Although some purists might raise their eyebrows, I have no great objection to the organ (played by James O’Donnell) having been ‘borrowed’ from Westminster Cathedral for the Symphony. Certainly this work is demanding for any recording engineer but this grand sound is as good a representation of the composer’s sonic philosophy as most. The dynamic range is suitably wide and the very gentle opening to the slow introduction is ideal. Weighty bass frequencies enhance the music (and not only in those passages featuring the organ). I like the way in which Geoffrey Simon drives the music firmly along in the Allegro section of the first movement. Certainly this is a Romantic symphony but there is so much detail written into the dramatic sequences that any further emphasis would have detracted from the flow of the composer’s succession of musical ideas. The music moves graciously into the mood of the slow movement, which very properly enters with only a minor pause – so minor that the rhythm continues from one movement to the next. Simon treats the Adagio very broadly but again chooses not to underline what is already very expressive and the subtle use of the organ is carefully moulded into the orchestral texture. The London Philharmonic Society commissioned the work in the 1880s; in a letter Saint-Saëns said that the symphony “will be terrifying”. While Simon uses his big forces with suitable power he also leaves room for an even stronger final peroration.
These discs make a fascinating extended programme and collectors will be well rewarded by obtaining both.