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Notes and Editorial Reviews
One of the most naturally gifted of all composers, the young Camille Saint-Saëns completed the first of his five symphonies when he was just 15 years old. The result – the delightful Symphony in A Major, composed in 1850 – is a work so polished and accomplished that it is hard to imagine that greater maturity would have allowed Saint-Saëns to improve it. The Symphony in E flat, published as his Symphony No.1 and Op.2, followed three years later, a remarkable work in which it is plain to see that the composer had made huge strides. Both Berlioz and Gounod, who attended the premiere, were bowled over by the assured technique, colourful orchestration, memorable tunes and sense of poise.
The Symphony in F – a charming
Schumannesque work, which won Saint-Saëns the first prize in a competition and the Symphony No.2 – a wonderfully wrought composition, full of surprises – followed in 1856 and 1859 respectively. However, the most popular of the five is undoubtedly the Symphony No.3, commonly known as the ‘Organ Symphony’. This radical work is constructed in two sections, using the Lisztian method of ‘transforming themes’. The huge orchestra, complete with piano four hands, is used to maximum effect, with the organ’s dramatic entry at the start of the final section a moment of thrilling musical drama.
While the ‘Organ Symphony’ has deservedly earned a place in the repertoire, Jean Martinon’s insightful and critically acclaimed recordings reveal the earlier symphonies as works of great appeal, worthy of far greater attention than they are normally afforded.
• "The performances under Martinon sound first rate, while the recording is excellent." (Gramophone review of the Symphonies in A and F in 1975).
• "Even in a competitive market the Martinon performance of the symphony stands out as distinguished, both for its character and for its almost ideal balance, glowing, yet clear." (Gramophone review of Symphony No. 3 in 1983).
• Booklet notes in English, French and German.
R E V I E W:
Very much worth hearing. Real character and craftsmanship.
It comes as no surprise that two other numbered Symphonies precede the well-known
Organ Symphony but the existence of a further two
unnumbered works may well do so. More to the point, whilst the much later No. 3 is the only one of the collection which might be described as an out and out masterpiece, all four of the others are very much worth hearing for their own merits. Whilst it is strictly accurate to describe them as early in the context of the composer’s long life and whilst the first was written when he was only about 15 there is no sense that these are immature or unsatisfactory. The remarkable thing about all of them is that each movement has real character and craftsmanship. They are certainly derivative in some aspects, reminding the listener of the music of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Mozart in particular as well as that of the composer’s older French contemporaries, Berlioz and Gounod. It remains a mystery that he never won the Prix de Rome, the goal of aspiring French composers of the nineteenth century. Much as I enjoy Bizet’s delightful Symphony in C any of the early works here is comparable to it in quality and enjoyable substance.
I suspect that all but the Third will have been new to the orchestra and possibly also to the conductor when they were recorded but you would never be aware of this from the characterful and affectionate playing. The Third also benefits from an idiomatic and purposeful approach, with the organ well placed in relation to the orchestra. Brief English notes by Barry Millington and longer and more informative notes in French by Phillipe Mourgeot assist in the listener’s enjoyment of a very worthwhile set. If you already have the composer’s complete piano or violin concertos you will be as eager as I was to add this set to your collection.
-- John Sheppard, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Symphony in A major by Camille Saint-Saëns
ORTF National Orchestra
Written: circa 1850; France
Symphony no 2 in A minor, Op. 55 by Camille Saint-Saëns
ORTF National Orchestra
Written: 1859; France
Symphony in F major "Urbs Roma" by Camille Saint-Saëns
ORTF National Orchestra
Written: 1856; France
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Mixed Review January 27, 2014
By M. Bishop (Clackamas, OR) See All My Reviews
"Jean Martinon and the ORTF National Orchestra do an expert job of performing four of the five symphonies of Saint-Saens. The performance of the famed Organ Symphony, however, falls short of the mark, in that it is performed in a somewhat perfunctory fashion. Symphony #3 (Organ) as performed here does not compare favorably with the rendition of the same symphony, as performed by Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the 1982 performance with Peter Hurford at the organ. The latter performance is more spirited and carries greater heft at the organ keyboard than is demonstrated here. All said, I still hold that you can't beat the quality of performance for the other four Saint-Saens' symphonies than what appears here by Jean Martinon."