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Saint-Saens - Music For The Prix De Rome

Release Date: 01/25/2011 
Label:  Glossa   Catalog #: 922210  
Composer:  Camille Saint-Saëns
Performer:  Solenn' Lavanant LinkePierre-Yves PruvotJulie FuchsNicolas Courjal,   ... 
Conductor:  Hervé Niquet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Flemish Radio ChoirBrussels Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SAINT-SAËNS Ivanhoé 1. Le Retour de Virginie 2. Ode 3. Choeur de Sylphes. 4 Messe, op. 4 (excerpts) 5. Motets au Saint Sacrement 6 Hervé Niquet, cond; 1,2 Marina de Liso Read more ( Rebecca, Marguerite ); 1,2 Bernard Richter ( Ivanhoé, Paul ); 1 Pierre-Yves Pruvot ( Brian de Bois-Guilbert ); 2 Nicolas Courjal ( Missionnaire des Pamplemousses ); 4 Julie Fuchs (sop); 4 Solenn’ Lavanant Linke (mez); 5,6 François Saint-Yves (org); 6 Bart Cypers (hn); 3-6 Flemish R Ch; 1-4 Brussels Phil GLOSSA GCD 922210 (2 CDs: 114:23 Text and Translation)

The Prix de Rome has the dubious distinction of being far better known for the notable composers to whom it was refused, or to whom it was rewarded for inferior works, than for the composers and works it recognized. Over its long history (1803–1968) the ranks of the rejected were to include Charles Alkan, Alfred Bruneau, Ernest Chausson, Paul Dukas, Maurice Ravel, and Camille Saint-Saëns. While Hector Berlioz and Claude Debussy, who competed for the prize multiple times, did finally secure it for compositions now virtually forgotten, their previous and far more substantial submissions (notably Berlioz’s Cléopâtre from 1829) were passed over.

The present set gathers together all the pieces that Saint-Saëns composed for the two years in which he competed for the prize, 1852 and 1864, supplemented by some stylistically related ecclesiastical compositions from 1857. The competition, at least in the time of Saint-Saëns, occurred in two stages: a preliminary one in which aspirants submitted a short choral work, and then the main one in which the finalists all set competing versions of the same libretto. For the 1852 contest, the 17-year-old Wunderkind placed first among six finalists for his Choeur de Sylphes but failed to place for his setting of Le Retour de Virginie (The Return of Virginia). In 1864, at age 28, the now mature composer was a last-minute applicant; the normal cut-off age for competitors was 25, but a recent revamping of the rules by the government temporarily suspended that limit. Once again Saint-Saëns placed first in the preliminary round with his Ode (though see the discussion below), but to his chagrin—and some controversy—the committee (the members of which included Daniel Auber and Berlioz) disqualified him for the final first prize for Ivanhoé due to his age and awarded him the second prize instead. Auber, who had voted for Saint-Saëns, offered a consolation prize of a setting of the libretto to Le Timbre d’argent (The Silver Bell), which became the composer’s first opera. Berlioz, who had voted against him, belatedly mended fences by personally going to Saint-Saëns’s home to notify him that his cantata Les Noces de Prométhée had won the competition for the 1867 Exposition Universelle and would be performed at state expense. When the promised event was scuttled, Saint-Saëns—who ironically would eventually be reviled as a living embodiment of reactionary academicism—became permanently embittered toward official musical institutions and thereafter never held a position at one. The scars were so deep that when Jean Bonnerot’s biography was published in 1922, the composer’s widow (separated from him since 1881) wrote the author in astonishment to say that her husband had never even mentioned the 1864 competition to her.

So far as I can ascertain, except for the two excerpts from the Mass (which has four complete recordings in print) and possible isolated recordings of some of the eight motets, these are all premiere recordings. What is immediately apparent are the great strides that Saint-Saëns made as a composer in a 12-year span. The brief Choeur de Sylphes makes no effort to hide the adolescent’s infatuation with the music of Mendelssohn; it is a straight crib—though a very good and thoroughly enjoyable one—from the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream , particularly the Scherzo.

Le Retour , unfortunately, is of far less interest; aside from its amateurish reliance on Mendelssohn’s Meerstille und glückliche Fahrt for musical effects to depict the sea (specifically noted by the composer himself), its uninspired vocal lines are quite inappropriately written in the style of opéra-comique rather than tragédie lyrique , including some of the most hackneyed and vacuous coloratura soprano passages one is ever likely to hear. The text by Auguste Rollet, based on the celebrated novel Paul et Virginie by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, is of miserably bad quality; in 1894 Saint-Saëns himself wrote to Charles Malherbe regarding it: “What an absurd libretto! What poor, even ridiculous verse!” The scene opens as Paul, residing in Mauritius, pines at interminable length for his beloved sister Virginia, who is in France. His mother, Marguerite, enters with a letter from Virginia advising that she will arrive shortly on the ship Saint-Géran . A missionary enters and urges them to pray for the ship’s safe arrival as a storm gathers and breaks forth. The ship’s cannon is heard firing a distress signal as it runs aground; presently the body of the drowned Virginia washes up at their feet in a shroud. Paul collapses in grief as the missionary declares that Virginia’s soul is now in Heaven.

At this point the booklet creates considerable confusion, which I have not been able to resolve by further research. The table of contents dates the Ode to 1864 and states that the recorded performance follows the composer’s manuscript in the Archives Nationales. The text is identified as being by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and is transparently a parody of Psalm 129 (Psalm 130 in the Protestant numbering). The first booklet essay by Alexandre Dratwicki identifies it as the work submitted for the first round of the 1864 competition and remarks upon it as a stylistic step forward from the 1857 Mass, and that certainly is what it sounds like. However, the second and main booklet essay by Yves Gérard makes no mention of any such work, nor can I find it listed in a catalog of the composer’s oeuvre . Instead, that essay discusses in some detail an 1852 Ode-Cantate à Sainte-Cécile , scored for soloists, organ, and orchestra, for which Saint-Saëns won first prize in a competition sponsored by a Parisian musical society, the Société Sainte-Cécile. However, Gérard identifies the text for that work as being by Paul Nibelle and based on the first verse of Psalm 17 (18); that does not match the sung text, and the work recorded here has no vocal soloists, either. Perhaps a Saint-Saëns scholar reading these lines will kindly write in to straighten this all out, but based on the text and compositional style I wonder if Dratwicki and the table of contents are correct, and this Ode is an uncataloged work dating from 1864 that Gérard has confounded with the 1852 Ode-Cantate— though in that case why didn’t anyone else catch the error? (Be advised that ArkivMusic, following Gérard and the New Grove , lists the work as the Ode à Sainte-Cécile and composed in 1852.)

At any rate, by 1864 Saint-Saëns had found his own compositional voice and attained his high level of elegant craftsmanship; despite his atheistic convictions, he composed a significant number of sacred choral works. The Ode is a lovely work, at once both lyrical and dramatic, evincing what Dratwicki aptly terms “neo-Palestrinian accents.” Much the same can be said of the two excerpts from the Mass (the Credo and Agnus Dei) and the eight motets, both dating from 1857, though in those works the influence of Mendelssohn is still also much in evidence. The latter are transparent in texture, sweetly comforting and uplifting without turning saccharine, and within the technical compass of many church choirs. The sixth and seventh are the best-known, while the eighth is notable for the unusual addition of a horn to the organ in the instrumental accompaniment; one wonders if this later influenced Gabriel Fauré in the composition of his Requiem.

The most substantial work here is the cantata Ivanhoé . The text by Victor Roussy adapts a scene from Sir Walter Scott’s novel in which Rebecca is imprisoned in a tower on charges of sorcery. She prays that Wilfred Ivanhoe, who she secretly loves, might defend her innocence in trial by combat, but despairs of his doing so because she is a Jew and he is a Christian. Her dreaded nemesis, the Knight Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert, who desires Rebecca for himself, enters. He offers to free her and make her queen of the Crusader kingdom he plans to create for himself if she will be his. She rejects him; as he is about to seize her by force Ivanhoe, freshly recovered from wounds in combat, bursts in. He challenges Bois-Guilbert to mortal combat and the two go outside. Rebecca describes the combat aloud, rejoicing when Ivanhoe slays her foe. Ivanhoe returns, and the two rejoice in triumph.

There is a rather silly insistence in Gérard’s booklet notes that Ivanhoé is not inferior to Verdi’s Il Trovatore ; in fact, there are no real grounds for any comparison of the two. Not only is Verdi’s score infinitely superior—though Ivanhoé is certainly enjoyable on its own more modest terms, with nascent gifts of melodic invention, harmonic sophistication, and adept instrumentation that point to greater things to come—the former is also a full-fledged opera, whereas the latter is only a truncated scene that would at most form half of one typical operatic act. There is enough substance in it that one wishes Saint-Saëns had subsequently been supplied with a complete libretto for a full-scale stage work.

The performances range from good to excellent. In Ivanhoé mezzo-soprano Marina de Liso as Rebecca has a rich, potent voice, slightly steely in the upper register, with a bit of machine-gun vibrato. Baritone Pierre-Yves Pruvot as Bois-Guilbert possesses an impressively meaty, saturnine voice, but he pushes it a little too hard, with the result that the vibrato becomes slightly unsteady and breaks up his legato. In the heroic title role Bernard Richter displays an attractive, ringing tenor with a secure top, light vibrato, and exuberant spirit. Unfortunately the three voices do not blend well in their brief concerted moments, with the baritone being the sore point. The soloists are somewhat less satisfactory in Le Retour , though they are still quite acceptable. As Marguerite, de Liso’s vibrato is more prominent, not quite centered, and sometimes acquires a rat-a-tat-tat sound; her coloratura passagework also is not very attractive. Richter is less suited to the more lyrical role of Paul; in attempting to lighten his timbre he decreases his breath support and the sound becomes a bit wan and strained at points. Nicolas Courjal as the Missionary has a basically attractive bass voice, but his slightly lachrymose production makes the vibrato slightly unsteady at some moments. On the other hand, I have no reservations about the chorus and orchestra, which sing and play superbly; organist François Saint-Yves, a sensitive accompanist; or conductor Hervé Niquet, who is primarily known for his period-instrument performances of Baroque and Classical works but here demonstrates a complete mastery of the French Romantic idiom.

The sound quality is ideal—full, rich, and warm, neither too close nor too distant, and not afflicted with unwonted resonance or reverberation. The libretti are provided in French and English, the booklet notes in French, English, German, and Italian. My one complaint—or better, query—is why the complete Mass was not recorded instead of just the two movements excerpted here, as there is ample space for it. For aficionados of Saint-Saëns this set is self-recommending and a sine qua non ; I would also particularly commend it to lovers of ecclesiastical choral music for the items on the second disc.

FANFARE: James A. Altena
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Works on This Recording

Ivanhoé by Camille Saint-Saëns
Conductor:  Hervé Niquet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Flemish Radio Choir,  Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1864 
Le Retour de Virginie by Camille Saint-Saëns
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Flemish Radio Choir,  Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1852 
Ode à Sainte-Cécile by Camille Saint-Saëns
Performer:  Solenn' Lavanant Linke (Mezzo Soprano), Pierre-Yves Pruvot (Baritone), Julie Fuchs (Soprano),
Nicolas Courjal (Bass), Bernard Richter (Tenor), Marina De Liso (Mezzo Soprano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Flemish Radio Choir,  Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1852 
Mass, Op. 4: O salutaris by Camille Saint-Saëns
Performer:  François Saint-Yves (Organ)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Flemish Radio Choir,  Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855; France 

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