This is a most enjoyable release shining welcome light on a hidden corner of Camille Saint-Saens’s prolific musical output. Not that he’s in no danger of extinction, for Carnival of the Animals, at least two of the five piano concertos, and the conveniently entitled ‘Organ Symphony’ (in fact a misnomer, it’s ‘just’ Symphony No.3) will never be far away from our consciousness. Of his operas, however, only Samson et Dalila is relatively well-known and the orchestral ‘Bacchanale’ from it has taken on independent life.
Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was not only an abundant composer, he was also an inveterate traveller (he died at the age of 86 while on holiday in Algiers), a skilled writer of plays and poetry, and he also published on astrology, philosophy and science. In addition to much chamber, choral and orchestral music, Saint-Saëns wrote thirteen operas, so rare most of them that the orchestral selections here are first recordings, aside from those from Henry VIII.
The music itself tends to be exotic or antique-pastiche. From boisterous revelry to sheer charm, Saint-Saëns's delicate writing is always a joy, and every piece (twenty-four in all) falls gratefully on the ear, melody to the fore, colour an integral part of the design. The twenty-five minutes devoted to Ascanio range from ebullient to loveliness. In one of the movements Saint-Saëns borrows a tune from a 1588 collection by Thoinot Arbeau that most listeners will recognise from Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite; Saint-Saëns’s orchestral dressing of it is especially endearing.
The most substantial music here is the ‘Prologue’ from Les Barbares, a fifteen-minute raising of dramatic and tragic stakes introducing what was intended as a spectacular outdoors entertainment to a libretto by Victorien Sardou, the wordsmith for Tosca. The piece also melts to a ravishing violin solo (beautifully played) and the closing ‘Farandole’ enjoys skirling woodwinds. The music from Etienne Marcel begins in foot-tapping, almost Vaudeville, fashion; this is carefree music that includes elegantly turned dances.
Orchestra Victoria impresses with its sturdy ensemble and splendid solos (not least from flute and trumpet). Guillaume Tourniaire conducts with affection for music that is pure pleasure and is magically engaging at times; here’s a conductor (he just happens to be French) that appreciates the music’s alluring ambition. The French have the ideal word to sum things up: insouciant. The recording venue is perhaps too spacious as an acoustic and the strings en masse can seem a little distant within it, but the sound is warm and avoids muddiness, complementing this likably lightweight collection that pleasingly reminds of Saint-Saëns’s multi-talents and his consummate skill in creating just what was needed for any occasion.