Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 2, Danse macabre & Urbs Roma (CD)

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Madeline Adkins, Utah Symphony, Thierry Fischer

Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No 2 is, by any standards, an outright winner and deserves to be much better known. Here, it’s one of two substantial works flanking a rambunctious account of ‘Danse macabre’.

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The Classical Music Collector

"We are somewhat overloaded with recordings of Saint-Saëns Third Symphony, and one has to wonder how many of the listeners to that work ask the question: why do we never hear the First and Second? In fact there are several recordings of these less familiar works, but they continue to sit on the edge of the repertoire, for no good reason. The Second Symphony, from 1859, is a dramatic early work of the long-lived Saint-Saëns, with more than a hint of Berlioz and Beethoven, but possessing already the characteristic Saint-Saëns ebullience and wit. Coupled with it on this excellent new Hyperion disc is an even rarer work, his Symphony in F, Urbs Roma, written three years earlier, and midway between the First and Second. It failed to find its way into the numbered symphonies for complicated reasons, and we suspect Saint-Saëns may have been unhappy with it, but as a youthful major work it holds much interest—not least musical. Separating these two formal, symphonic works is Saint-Saëns’ showpiece, the hilarious Dance Macabre—beloved of Liszt and Jonathan Creek fans. Covering the gamut from elegant to dramatic to funny, this CD offers a rounded portrait of the prodigious young Saint-Saëns.." - Chris Dench

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Gramophone Magazine

"Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony’s performances here are polished and graciously articulate…favouring poise and charm over heat and bite. There’s exhilaration, too, mind you… The Danse macabre moves with an elegant yet persistent impetus; listening, one feels impelled to keep moving. Madeline Adkins plays the solo violin part alluringly yet with a slightly devilish edge to her tone… I’m already craving the next instalment."

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Saint-Saens Symphony No 2 in A minor Op 55
1. Allegro marcato – Allegro appassionato
2. Adagio
3. Scherzo: Presto
4. Prestissimo
5. Danse macabre Op 40

Saint-Saens Symphony in F major ‘Urbs Roma’
6. Largo – Allegro
7. Molto vivace
8. Moderato, assai serioso
9. Poco allegretto – Andante con moto

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Another winner for Fischer and Saint-Saëns



The Utah Symphony is recording the symphonies of Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) with their current Musical Director Thierry Fischer. Fischer is a specialist in French music, having given us works by Jean Françaix, Charles-Marie Widor and others. The earlier disc in this new series, centering on Saint-Saëns' Third Symphony (the "Organ" Symphony), was a winner.

The composer produced three numbered symphonies and two others, one of which is the early "Urbs Roma" (or The City of Rome) of 1856. He had never been to Rome when he wrote it, and it may have been intended as a musical raspberry aimed at the judges of the lucrative Prix de Rome, which Saint-Saëns (like Ravel after him) failed to win.  The work nevertheless exudes Mediterranean warmth, and is structurally and texturally tighter than Georges Bizet's "Roma", even though the Saint-Saëns symphony is longer. (Bizet won the Prix de Rome in 1857). The Symphony No. 2 is arguably the composer's best, after the ubiquitous Third, and is a bracing example of the French symphonic style of the 19th Century: light, deftly scored, Classical but incorporating Romantic gestures and harmonies. The Mendelssohnian Scherzo is delightful.

Fischer conducts characterful performances of both works, with some idiosyncratic touches. The most unusual of these is his slow speed for the third movement of "Urbs Roma". At 13:37 it is the most drawn out performance I know of this quasi-provincial Italian funeral march, but by taking his time Fischer gives it tremendous character. Paradoxically, at a faster speed it outstays its welcome.

Both symphonies have strong recorded competition. They are coupled together on a BIS disc (with Jean-Jacques Kantorow conducting the Tapiola Sinfonietta), which favours a livelier approach in a more open acoustic. Recently, both symphonies also appeared in a Naxos series with Marc Soustrot conducting the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, in taut and well recorded performances. There they are on separate discs, but at the cheaper Naxos price they are worth considering: apart from Danse Macabre (which everybody does well), you also get Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 1 and two other tone poems. The choice is yours; you can't go wrong with any of them. 4.5 STARS (CD)