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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

World-Class Symphonic Grandeur From an Unlikely Spot

Playing devil’s advocate, here’s how Roger Nichols introduces the liner notes for the Utah Symphony’s sumptuous new recording of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony: ”Igor Stravinsky remembered Saint-Saëns as ‘a sharp little man’, demonstrably unimpressed by the sounds emanating from the orchestra in The Rite of Spring. Succeeding generations have perpetuated this view of Saint-Saëns as a carping pedant, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who excelled in providing music that was all surface and little content.”

#gutpunch.

Nichols quickly goes on to explain how that perception is only part of the picture. In the days when it was even more customary (and often necessary) for composers to rely on commissions from the entitled classes to pay the rent, guys like Saint-Saëns would churn out one predictably cheery, cliched score after another. After all, the landed gentry of 1880s France had no more interest in anything challenging or cutting edge than the tattooed newcomers to Bushwick and Bed-Stuy do now. But as anybody who’s heard Carnival of the Animals or Danse Macabre – each written for Saint-Saëns’ family – will agree, there’s a whole different side to his work.

This is a rare recording – streaming at Spotify – where the shorter pieces on the program actually upstage the centerpiece. Conductor Thierry Fischer and the ensemble give Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 every bit of opulent ostentatiousness it deserves, a fullscale orchestral work supercharged with both organ and piano, the icing on a many-layered sonic cake. As classical party music goes, this is about as good as it gets. Recorded live in concert just over a year ago on the group’s home turf, the sound quality is magnificent. Solos throughout the orchestra, from James Hall’s oboe to Louise Vickerman’s harp, are precise and emphatic. Exchanges between various sections of the group are seamless, and the dynamics cover as much ground as a symphonic ensemble possibly can. And the hooks come at you, over and over again: just when you’re humming one, another will jump in and displace it.

The performance of the composer’s only slightly less lavish 1909 suite Trois Tableaux Symphoniques d’Après La Foi is even more of a thrill. If less ambitiously than Bartok, Saint-Saëns by then had fallen under the spell of North African music. While this is limited to what fans of Middle Eastern sounds cynically call “Hollywood hijaz,” the French Romantic was obviously feeding off a big jolt of inspiration and that translates to the orchestra here. Its cinematic vistas may be comfortable and predictably catchy, but they’re hardly shallow. And the wistful finale has poignancy to rival anything Samuel Barber ever wrote. The orchestra follow by stampeding through the chromatics of the famous Bacchanale from the opera Samson & Delilah, every single click of the castanets fired off with relish.

Over the years, the people of the state of Utah haven’t done themselves any favors by pulling stunts like withdrawing from the Boy Scouts of America since girls are allowed to join Scout troops now (you’d think that it would be the other way around, that all the boys would want to join the Girl Scouts for the sake of the enormous profits in selling cookies, but that’s a topic for another time). Rather than reinforcing any regional preconceptions, this album reminds how great art sometimes flourishes in unlikely places. Put this on your playlist along with the best-ever recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, by the Rochester Symphony Orchestra…if you can find it.

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December 17, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment