Kantorow Conducts Saint-Saëns

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SAINT-SAËNS: Symphony in A. Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 / Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liege; Jean-Jacques Kantorow, cond / Bis SACD-2460

I’m not sure if this is Vol. 1 of a projected series of recordings of Saint-Saëns’ complete symphonies, similar to the one issued on Naxos by Marc Soustrot, or just a one-off, but I sincerely hope it is the former, because these performances have an energy to them that reminded me of Charles Munch, my favorite French conductor (although he was technically Alsatian, meaning he came from that area of France than was most strongly influenced by German musical culture as well).

This is particularly evident in the early (1850) unnumbered symphony in A major, written when the composer was only 15 years old and influenced by Mozart. Mozart may indeed have been his influence, but at least the way Kantorow conducts it, it sounds much different, even different from Mozart’s late period of the “Haffner,” “Prague” and “Jupiter” symphonies. Comparing him to Soustrot, one hears a clear difference in approach. Soustrot is generally more lyrical in his phrasing, Kantorow more dynamic in his. There’s an undercurrent of restlessness in each and every bar of this work that one can compare, for instance, to the way Toscanini conducted Schubert (and Mozart) compared to his more sedate contemporaries. If one thus projects this style into future Saint-Saëns works such as the famous “organ symphony” No. 3 or the opera Samson et Dalila, one can hear essentially the same composer in both.

But as I say, Kantorow’s musical approach reminds me of Munch first and foremost. There is lyricism when it is called for, as in the slow movement of this and the succeeding symphonies on this disc, but his tempi are consistently faster than those of Soustrot. This gives an almost constant forward pressure to the phrases and a more energetic feeling of rhythm in both the slow and fast sections of the music that holds one’s attention more forcefully than in the Soustrot recordings. And mind you, it’s not that Soustrot gives dull or featureless performances of the Saint-Saëns symphonies so much as Kantorow simply approaches them with a more dynamic and almost theatrical style. Moreover, the SACD sonics of this CD has an immeasurably greater realism and presence for the orchestra. One hears every detail of the orchestral texture in an almost 3-D manner, and sometimes these details, partially obscured by Naxos’ more ambient sonics, take you by surprise.

I would go even further and say that these performances almost sound more German than French, and that’s OK too because, in my view, Saint-Saëns was the most Germanic French composer of his time. Even as a young man, he was most enthusiastic about the most advanced German music of his day, including that of Schumann and Wagner. He used more complex structures borrowed from German music and developed his music along German lines; one can even hear this in such late works as The Carnival of the Animals, satirical though most of that orchestral suite is.

I must also congratulate Kantorow for rejecting the ahistorical use of whiny “straight tone” in the strings. By the mid-19th century, most orchestras were not using this style any more, and to impose a modern revisionist musical theory on music of the past is not only wrong but offensive to the ear. The numbered first symphony, though written only three years later, is clearly influenced by Schumann in both mood and structure. Perhaps Kantorow takes the opening “Adagio” section a trifle too fast, but I find this approach quite exciting and dynamic. Nonetheless, I can just hear many Francophiles shouting “C’est tout faux!” and preferring some slower, softer version of the symphony. The only really faulty performance, I thought, was the last movement of the Symphony No. 1, which Kantorow rushes so much that it sounds pompous and bombastic. Soustrot conducts it at a saner tempo—it is, after all, marked “Allegro maestoso”—which generates enough excitement without trying to make it explode.

Something else struck me while listening to these performances, and that is how Kantorow has brought Saint-Saëns’ musical style into line with that of Hector Berlioz. Born in 1835, Saint-Saëns was 34 years old when Berlioz died in 1869, and thus would clearly have known of his remarkable music if not the man himself. Although Berlioz’ musical style borrowed only a few features of German music, particularly from Beethoven, I consider it inconceivable that a genius like Saint-Saëns would not recognize the greatness in his quirky older contemporary, particularly in his operas, and British musicologist Alan Blyth agrees with me. (You can certainly hear traces of Berlioz in Saint-Saëns’ own favorite of his operas, the eccentric Le Timbre d’argent.)

An unusual feature of the Second Symphony is that the opening movement almost sounds like a sinfonia concert ante, with string and wind solos interspersed in the opening section, followed by a fugue for the entire string section. And there are delights galore in this symphony, particularly the eccentric “Scherzo” which sounded, to me, influenced to some extent by the Symphonie Fantastique. By contrast, the scurrying final movement sounds as if it were influenced by Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. (Well, why not borrow from the best?)

A very fine album, then, save for the last movement of the first numbered symphony. I recommend it to all admirers of this splendid composer.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Kantorow Conducts Saint-Saëns

  1. John H says:

    Another detailed review written with great precision. And singling out Saint-Saens as a genius is “unfashionable” today, but quite correct imho.

    Like

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