Monday, February 5, 2018

Saint-Saëns’ Intimate Orchestral Music

courtesy of Naxos of America

During my student days, Camille Saint-Saëns never seemed to get a fair shake. It was fashionable to dismiss him as a reactionary for his opposition to both the Impressionists and those seeking to get away from the tonal center. Nevertheless, his students included Gabriel Fauré, who was viewed as a trailblazer by the more adventurous French composers of the early twentieth century. Saint-Saëns was also a vigorous advocate of many of his own “modern” contemporaries, including Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner. However, none of that seemed to signify in any of the classes I attended. Instead, there were throw-away jibes about the virtuoso excesses of his concertante music and the unabashed bombast of his third (“Organ”) symphony.

This Friday Naxos will release an album that demonstrates that, even when working with a full orchestra, Saint-Saëns could serve up a level of intimacy that was not often encountered during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jun Märkl, whom I recently cited for the nine-CD box of the “complete orchestral works” of Claude Debussy, which Naxos released in February of 2012, conducts the Basque National Orchestra, where, at the time this new album was recorded, he was serving as Chief Conductor. As should be expected, is currently processing pre-orders.

I must confess that I was drawn to this album by a ring of familiarity with its opening selection, the Opus 60 Suite algérienne, whose third movement was composed during a visit to Algeria in 1875, followed by the remaining three movements composed during the summer of 1880. Saint-Saëns wrote out brief programmatic descriptions for each of these movements; but I was unaware of any of that when I first encountered the final movement, “Marche militaire française.” That encounter was in a high school band, and it was replete with all the bombast that so offended the teachers I encountered after leaving high school. As I recall, it was also appropriated for one of the “news discussion” programs on television, the “hangout” for what Calvin Trillin liked to call the “Sabbath-Day gasbags.”

Listening to Märkl’s performance, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the original orchestral setting was about as distant from a blaring high school band as one could get. Instead, each of the four movements provides its own expression of how much Saint-Saëns loved his visits to Algeria. Indeed, the music is so affectionate that it is easy to overlook the extent to which the Algerians never thought much of France as a colonial power!

Similar affectionate spirits can be found in the other two suites that Märkl recorded, Opus 49, which is an orchestration of music originally written for harmonium, and the orchestra version of the Opus 16 suite for cello and piano. (The cello soloist for the latter is Guillermo Pastrana.) The album then concludes with the Opus 15 serenade in E-flat major in an orchestral transcription of the original chamber music score, written for the unlikely combination of piano, harmonium, violin, and viola (or cello).

Taken as a whole, the album is a delightful reminder that even music from the nineteenth century did not always have to plumb profound depths but could be enjoyed for far simpler pleasures.

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