SAINT-SAËNS Symphonic Poems
Saint-Saëns’s symphonic poems are rarely gathered together on disc. From the UK, there are strong collections from Charles Dutoit and the Philharmonia (Decca), and Neeme Järvi and the RSNO (Chandos). But why have French orchestras been so reluctant to record them? Conductors like Jean Martinon and Georges Prêtre championed the symphonies but the only collection of the four symphonic poems by a French orchestra I can track down is an LP by Pierre Dervaux and the Orchestre de Paris (nla). In the July 1973 issue of Gramophone, John Warrack dismissed the music as ‘Saint-Saëns’s bland muse’ and the performances as ‘lucid, unsensational, but graphic’.
Step forwards Jun Märkl, whose tenure as music director at the Orchestre National de Lyon – which yielded a fine set of Debussy recordings for Naxos – was acknowledged in 2012 when he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. Here he does the honours with the Orchestre National de Lille in splendid accounts.
Hercules appears in two of the symphonic poems, and so a photo of Giambologna’s marble sculpture Hercules Slaying the Centaur features on the disc’s cover. In La jeunesse d’Hercule (‘The Youth of Hercules’), our hero is torn between virtue and pleasure, rejecting the latter but only after a bacchanale (tame by comparison with that from Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson et Dalila). Märkl is steadier than Järvi here but the Lille strings offer virginal piety. Woodwinds whirr and chatter garrulously in Le rouet d’Omphale (‘Omphale’s Spinning Wheel’), even if Dutoit’s strings are clothed in more Mendelssohnian gossamer.
There is no mention of the soloist taking on the role of skeletal fiddler in the Danse macabre, though it is presumably Fernand Iaciu, long-standing leader since 1984, who cuts an elegant balance between demonic aggression and sweetness. The xylophone rattle and col legno strings are devilishly good.
My favourite of the four is Phaéton. Desperate to prove he descends from the sun god Helios, he begs to be allowed to drive his chariot across the sky, with disastrous consequences. Märkl is fleet-footed, with delicate lightness to the harp and strings after the brassy introduction, woodwinds chattering vividly as the wild horses gallop away. Naxos’s detailed recording clearly catches the timpani rumble in the descending string figures (from 4'06") and there’s a strong climax as Zeus’s thunderbolt strikes Phaéton down, leading to his burial by mourning nymphs.
Järvi’s fillers are more generous (77 minutes versus Naxos’s 55) and more attractive, including the Samson et Dalila Bacchanale and the ‘Marche militaire française’ from the Suite algérienne. Märkl opts for the plucky Marche héroïque, a symbol of resistance during the Siege of Paris, and the elegant but calorific mock-baroquery of the Sarabande and Rigaudon.