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Saint-Saëns: Symphonies 1 & 2 - Kantorow

Saint-Saëns: Symphonies 1 & 2 - Kantorow

BIS  BIS 2460

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Saint-Saëns: Symphonies 1 & 2, Symphony in A major

Orchester Philharmonique Royal de Liege
Jean-Jacques Kantorow (conductor)


Prodigiously gifted, Camille Saint-Saëns entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1848, at the age of 13. There he discovered the symphonies of the great German and Austrian composers and soon began to try his own hand at the genre. The Symphony in A major stems from this period and although it was most likely never performed in his lifetime it demonstrates his exceptional talent to the full. Only a couple of years later, in 1853, Saint-Saëns submitted his second attempt at writing a symphony to one of the capital's concert societies. Praised by Berlioz and Gounod, the Symphony No. 1 in E flat major was accepted for performance and published shortly afterwards as the composer's opus 2. Classical in form, it is an example of Saint-Saëns' typical clarity,

By the late 1850s, despite his youth, Saint-Saëns was already well-established: in addition to his activity as a virtuoso pianist, he had been named organist of La Madeleine in Paris. He composed his Symphony No. 2 in A minor quickly: from July to September 1859. The orchestration is transparent, and the first movement unusually features a fugue for three voices. Concise and constantly inventive, the work moves away from the Viennese models Saint-Saëns admired so much, with a finale reminiscent of the tarantella in Mendelssohn's 'Italian' Symphony. The present disc is the first of two dedicated to the symphonies of Saint-Saëns and recorded by the Orchester Philharmonique Royal de Liege and Jean-Jacques Kantorow to commemorate the centenary of the composer's death.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - June 19, 2021

Was he afraid that his symphony would not survive scrutiny in an environment addicted to Italian opera? The 1853 Paris premiere, with Gounod and Berlioz in the hall, was given ‘incognito’. It must have been a relief for this 18-year-old when afterwards his name was unveiled and Gounod sent him a word of congratulation. The liner notes explain in great detail the start of this French wonder boy’s career and we get an opportunity offered by BIS to savour this ‘youth symphony’, bubbling with enthusiasm and melody, in the best possible sound available to date.

With the exception of Thierry Fisher, until 2016 Music Director of the Utah Symphony (but all the same of francophone Swiss nationality), most if not all available recordings seem to be the ‘chasse gardée’ of French conductors like Jean Martinon, Georges Prêtre, and Marc Soustrot. This new one is no exception. Although with a Belgian orchestra (of the French language part of the country), the conductor is, once more, thoroughly French.

Neglected stuff? The truth seems to be that filling a concert hall demands known and widely appreciated works and soloists. Concert managers find it already difficult enough to squeeze in contemporary material. Dvorak’s New World Symphony guarantees a sold-out hall; Saint Saëns’ 1 or 2, does not, at least not beyond the francophone world, so it would seem to me. But even so, during the past 15 years, my local symphony (Orchestre de Caen) played, as far as my memory still serves me, only once a comparable symphony: Gounod’s second. Available in a glorious Chandos Hi-Res version, conducted (yes!) by another Frenchman, Yan Pascal Tortelier: Gounod: Symphonies 1 & 2 - Tortelier, with a finale so ‘olala’ very French.

The long and the short of it is that we must be grateful to Robert von Bahr (Bissie) to offer Saint-Saëns, two lovely symphonies, in a glowing performance by one of the better Belgian symphony orchestras under the baton of a seasoned French conductor needing no further recommendation, to be discovered by the rest of the world. Why not succumb to its charm. It freshens the mind after a hefty Mahler.

Reading my comments above and doing some further research, I must be honest towards all the Wizz kids on this site to admit that there is indeed another Hi-Res version of the two symphonies, and, believe or not, with a completely non-French cast, released by Pentatone, though in its older RQR series: Saint-Saëns: Symphonies 1 & 2 - Inbal, well-received at the time but with today’s ears a bit dated.

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2021 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Comment by Stephen Wright - May 22, 2021 (1 of 4)

Fantastic in every way, my favorite BIS recording since the Alkan symphony and concerto for solo piano. Kantorow makes these works sound like minor masterpieces akin to, say, the best movements of Tchaikovsky's first three symphonies.

Comment by breydon_music - May 23, 2021 (2 of 4)

Stephen, many thanks for taking the time to post this. I had noticed this release when it was first announced a while ago and had been hoping someone would post. These are the sort of not quite top league works that need persuasive advocacy to bring them to life and it sounds as if that is just what Kantorow does. I'm off to order it right now!

Comment by john hunter - June 23, 2021 (3 of 4)

Symphony 2 also turns up on Pentatone PTC5186 357 along with the D'Indy Symphonie sur un Chant Montagnard Francais.
I must say this new recording has made a far more substantial impression!

Comment by hiredfox - July 10, 2021 (4 of 4)

Kantorow serves up scintillating performances of Camille Saint Saens good natured symphonies that captivate from beginning to end. I have only praise for this BIS recording and recommend it to colleagues without reservation. Heaven only knows why these works are not heard more frequently in the concert hall.