Classical Album Review: Playing Musical Homage to Camille Saint-Saëns — World Traveler

By Ralph P. Locke

The French chamber orchestra Divertimento’s debut recording, which includes “classical” and “folk” tracks, is enchanting and often thought-provoking.

Bacchanale: Saint-Saëns et la Méditerranée.

Divertimento (chamber orchestra), cond. Zahia Ziouani.

Harmonia Mundi 905373 — 73 minutes.

To purchase or hear the beginning of each track, click here.

Should a classical CD be like a library book or like a concert? For decades, there was general agreement: it should be like a book, consisting of material that belongs together in obvious ways so that one can build one’s recorded library: two Beethoven symphonies, say, or a Beethoven overture and one of his symphonies.

Recently, performers have been more and more building a CD as if it were a concert, which means bringing intentional variety into the mix. An example of this is the debut CD by the France-based chamber orchestra called Divertimento, under its founding conductor Zahia Ziouani. Ziouani was born in France to parents from Algeria, and is the younger sister of the noted cellist Fettouma Ziouani. Zahia studied conducting under the renowned Sergiu Celibidache and took courses in musical analysis and other topics at the Sorbonne.

According to the orchestra’s publicity materials, conductor Ziouani has made a point of trying to help people who are not accustomed to attending classical concerts feel comfortable at Divertimento’s concerts. She does this in part by building a program with a series of short pieces or individual movements, by choosing works that are often based on highly accessible materials (such as folk tunes and rhythms of this or that country), and by bringing additional performers into the concert hall to perform in a non-classical manner — that is, perform music following the orally transmitted traditions of their native land.

This is precisely what we find in the enchanting and often thought-provoking first recording to feature Divertimento and its conductor. The title is Bacchanale: Saint-Saëns and the Mediterranean. We get to hear three of the four movements of Saint-Saëns’s familiar Suite algérienne as well as an Italian-style piece by him (Tarentelle, for flute, clarinet, and orchestra, Op. 6) and a Spanish one (Jota aragonese, Op. 64).

Saint-Saëns was a fervent world traveler, and loved noting, or even notating, music that he heard in his travels, so he was a perfect choice for this debut disc.

Nestled between the individual works and movements by Saint-Saëns are some numbers sung in Arabic, with accompaniment on oud (the instrument from which the European lute derived), qanun (a bit like a dulcimer), and percussion. The singer here, Rachid Brahim-Djelloul, is marvelous, and he also plays the violin at times in these numbers.

The best-known items on the CD are two excerpts from Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson et Dalila: the aria “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” with cellist Fettouma Ziouani playing Dalila’s vocal line quite beautifully, and the “Bacchanale,” a ballet number that incorporates a tune that Saint-Saëns was given by a French military man who had made his career in Algeria.

Zahia Ziouani conducting Divertimento. Photo: courtesy of the artist

Particularly intriguing are three ballet numbers from the incidental music that Saint-Saëns composed for the play Parysatis (1902). Here Saint-Saëns tried to imagine the music of ancient Persia, and of course failed in a sense, because nothing much was (or is) known about such music. But his attempts are fascinating, since he made a point of trying to avoid some of the basic building blocks of Western art music (such as normal triadic harmony and modulations).

The whole disc is worth sitting through many times because the “classical” tracks and the “folk” tracks illuminate each other. Or of course one can pick and choose tracks. (At first I couldn’t find the album as a sequential whole on Spotify, but that glitch has been resolved. Simply search for the conductor’s name, or for “Divertimento Bacchanale.”)

I should add that the fourth and final movement of the Suite algérienne is not included here. It’s one of the great orchestral marches, entitled “Marche militaire française.” If you want to hear all four movements of the Suite algérienne, one after the other, you’ll have to choose some other album. I wish that the booklet-essays had at least pointed out what the fourth movement is! Yes, it’s a tribute to French colonialism, but we shouldn’t for that reason pretend that it doesn’t exist. One can’t make sense of history if the basic facts are suppressed.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York Arts, Opera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). He is on the editorial board of a recently founded and intentionally wide-ranging open-access periodical: Music & Musical Performance: An International Journal.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts