Déjà-vu, as the French say ... this time last month (on its first day) I was singing the praises of Gounod’s two Symphonies. Now, May the First, I am just as enthusiastic for a brace of such works by Saint-Saëns.
The A-minor example opens with a gesture that reminds of how Schumann’s Konzertstück for four horns starts (the German composer got there first) but the Frenchman (in 1859) soon goes on to create a dramatic and fugal first movement, deftly and fervently brought off by the Utah musicians and Thierry Fischer, driving forward without overlooking detail, not least from hard-stick timpani. The ensuing (and brief) Adagio is a graceful dance riposted by a strong-arm Scherzo, with a softer-grained and witty/bubbly Trio as contrast (albeit with no Scherzo da capo); and if the marked Presto seems to reach a speed limit then the Finale goes beyond it; Prestissimo is Saint-Saëns’s direction, and from Utah it bounces along infectiously, very quick if secure in terms of ensemble, and with a dreamy surprise towards the close.
Three years earlier Saint-Saens had written a Symphony in F (‘Urbs Roma’; City of Rome). It’s an ambitious piece, forty-three minutes here, the first movement grand and confident, the composer at-one with the certain course of such largesse (we overlook Saint-Saëns’s immense talent at our peril) to which the second-placed Scherzo buzzes and stalks its way into the listener’s consciousness, whereas its agile Trio suggests flitting insects (not the stinging variety though; these are balletic butterflies and merry moths). The heart of the Symphony is the F-minor Adagio, music with funereal connotations that both glowers and solaces: the Symphony was first heard in 1857, in Paris, Pasdeloup conducting; I wonder if Berlioz heard it, for this slow movement, somewhat in his likeness, would surely have impressed him. The Finale, relaxed and rounded (Poco allegretto-Andante con moto), shares with the opening movement a sure sense of space and direction, gathering in resolution and ending peacefully, content.
And then there is Danse macabre, one of Saint-Saëns’s biggest hits, and rightly so, brilliantly descriptive of a graveyard at midnight and dancing skeletons, cued by fruity-toned concertmaster Madeline Adkins; as for the Symphonies, Danse is given a performance of style and commitment. If Abravanel Hall is on the reverberant side, and initial thoughts were that the sound is a little hard-edged, my ear soon adjusted and appreciated the natural perspective and clarity of texture. Enjoy!