SAINT-SAËNS: Symphony in A. Symphonies Nos. 1-3. Phaéton. Le Rouet d’Omphale. Symphony in F, “Urbs Roma.” Le Jeunesse d’Hercule. Danse Macabre / Malmö Symphony Orch.; Marc Soustrot, cond / Naxos 8.503301
This 3-CD set, scheduled for release on June 11, is a reissue of Marc Soustrot’s three single Naxos CDs of the complete Saint-Saëns symphonies plus orchestral tone poems. The principal feature in its favor is the “Urbs Roma” Symphony, which was the one that finally won the composer the Grand Prix de Rome.
As in the case of Hector Berlioz’ prize-winning work, not to mention several other composers, Saint-Saëns had to curb his creativity in order to please the judges. The Grand Prix de Rome had nothing to do with originality—in fact, that was frowned upon—so much as it was obeying the rules of composition imposed on all of its applicants. The result, as you can imagine, was a string of prize-winning composers whose careers went nowhere because they had nothing original to say, but since winning it brought a free trip to Italy along with a healthy stipend, it was sought after by great composers who simply had to swallow their pride (and inspiration) and write according to formula.
Considering all this, it’s surprising that there are some very good moments in the “Urbs Roma” Symphony despite of its prescribed limits, particularly the lively second movement, and conductor Marc Soustrot does his level best to enliven the proceedings throughout. Even so, here, as in the numbered symphonies as well as the early, unnumbered Symphony in A, his approach tends to vacillate between good, bracing moments in which there is good forward momentum and well-bound phrasing and moments when he lets the music meander a bit. It put me in mind of Toscanini’s complaint about his good friend Bruno Walter: “When he comes to something beautiful, he melts!”
But of course, French music can bear a bit of this sort of thing. As I mentioned in my review of Jean-Jacques Kantorow’s new recording of the Symphony in A along with numbered symphonies 1 & 2, his approach was rather the opposite, continually bracing even when, in a few spots, one longed for a bit of rubato to ease the continuous tension.
And really, considering the fact that most modern listeners prefer a more relaxed approach in French music, Soustrot’s approach will clearly appeal to many listeners. As I say, they’re basically good performances with a few moments of too much relaxation, but a few moments aren’t as bad as completely bland phrasing. I also noted that I gave him a very positive review for his recording of the same composer’s Piano Concerti Nos. 4 & 5 with Romain Descharmes at the keyboard, but in that case some of the excitement was generated by the pianist as well as by the conductor. Soustrot clearly has the measure of the music, and one cannot complain in this instance of too-reverberant sonics. The sound is forward and clear, which also helps one follow the thread of the music in each and every work.
The famous third symphony is also given a fine performance although, ironically enough, the solo organist is not identified either here or on the back cover of the original single CD release. His performances of the tone poems are equally good, particularly Le Rouet d’Omphale and Phaéton. He might have produced a little more “bite” in the orchestra for Danse Macabre, but it’s a rousing version which will not disappoint you. I also preferred his performance of the numbered Symphony No. 1’s last movement to that of Kantorow, as he allows the music some breathing room.
All in all, this is a real bargain. The whole thing is selling for $18.50 at Presto Classical, which is a really good deal. I recommend it, at least until such time as Kantorow shows us what he can do in the Symphony No. 3 and “Urbs Roma.”
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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