By Jonathan Blumhofer
A welcome entry in complete sets of Camille Saint-Saëns’s five symphonies — a composer of his caliber deserves a wealth of viewpoints.
Fans of Camille Saint-Saëns’s five symphonies have been well served these last few years: not one, but two complete cycles of the French composer’s symphonic works have emerged (one from the Malmö Symphony and Marc Sustrout on Naxos, the other from the Utah Symphony and Thierry Fischer on Reference Recordings) since 2015. Now, it appears that a third Saint-Saëns set is in the offing, this courtesy of the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège (OPRL) and Jean-Jacques Kantorow on Bis.
Kantorow is no stranger to this repertoire, having recorded two of the three symphonies on the present release with the Tapiola Sinfonietta in the 1990s. Interpretively, not much has changed in his approaches to either the Symphony in A or the Symphony no. 2, the conductor favoring brisk tempos, clean textures, and eschewing any hint of sentimentality in the proceedings.
In general, this is welcome. The Symphony in A (written around 1850) is essentially a student piece, full of echoes of Mozart (the first movement’s main subject repurposes the four-note fugal theme from the finale of the Jupiter Symphony), Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. That the whole thing comes over as more than a derivative pastiche is a testament to Saint-Saëns’s astounding technical abilities and genius as an orchestrator.
Kantorow’s present reading largely emphasizes those latter traits. The OPRL’s woodwind section’s playing over the first two movements is altogether lovely. There’s more than a little charm to be had in the graceful Scherzo, while the finale drives amiably.
In the Symphony no. 2 (from 1859), Kantorow and his forces revel in the music’s drama and virtuosity. Though occasionally frenetic, the first movement tremolos and sforzando attacks are bitingly urgent and the fugue snaps. The OPRL executes the Scherzo’s tricky metrical schemes with aplomb, while the quicksilver finale is dispatched with brio.
Coming in the middle of the disc is a radiant performance of the Symphony no. 1. Premiered in 1853, when Saint-Saëns was just 17, it’s music of breathtaking freshness and confidence, qualities Kantorow and his forces broadly intuit.
Here, the first movement is played with purpose and color, while the Scherzo is radiant, carefree, and songful as one might hope. Lean textures and a wonderful sense of space, shape, and atmosphere mark the gorgeous slow movement. In the finale, the Beethoven-esque fugue is smartly balanced and the delirious clarinet runs in the coda have hardly been bettered.
The bar for recordings of these three symphonies was set by Jean Martinon and the Orchestre National de l’ORTF back in the ’70s. Kantorow’s performances don’t quite supplant Martinon’s: among other things, the older conductor’s account of the Symphony in A benefits from a higher pitch of intensity throughout and he handles the peroration of the Symphony no. 1’s finale a bit more stylishly.
Even so, the ORPL’s performances are plenty lively. The album offers excellent recorded sound. What’s more, Kantorow’s interpretations nicely complement the Sustrout and Fischer sets (also, Martinon’s): a composer of Saint-Saëns’s caliber surely deserves such a wealth of viewpoints.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.