Saint-Saens - Symphonic Poems
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Cat No: 8573745
Number of Discs: 1
Release Date: 1st December 2017
WorksDanse macabre, op.40
La Jeunesse d'Hercule, op.50
Le Rouet d'Omphale, op.31
Marche heroique in E flat major, op.34
Sarabande et rigaudon, op.93
ArtistsOrchestre National de Lille
Conductor Jun Märkl specialises in twentieth-century French music for Naxos and has earned international plaudits for his multi-volume Debussy series as well as for his Ravel and Messiaen discs.
Of the final Debussy volume (Volume 8 on 8.572584) MusicWeb International wrote: “The orchestral playing is exemplary and the sonics are first rate. There’s just enough resonance to deliver a true Debussian sound to the listener but all the inner details can still be clearly heard. Both conductor and orchestra were in splendid form during this session.”
The Orchestre National de Lille has previously recorded Dutilleux’s Symphony No.2 ‘Le Double’, Timbres, espace, movement, Mystère de l’instant with Grammy Award-nominated conductor Darrell Ang on Naxos (8573596), which received an ‘Excepcional’ rating from Scherzo magazine. And ClassicsToday.com wrote “the performances make all the right points of transparency, fluidity, and expressive precision.”
1Phaeton - Symphonic Poem, no.2, op.39
2Marche heroique, op.34
3La Jeunesse d'Hercule - Symphonic Poem, no.4, op.50
4Le Rouet d'Omphale - Symphonic Poem, no.1, op.31
5Sarabande, op.93, no.1
6Riguadon, op.93, no.2
7Danse macabre - Symphonic Poem, no.3, op.40
Proceedings get under way with Phaéton (1873), which recounts the tale of the sun god Helios’s hapless son who, eager to prove his lineage, is reluctantly given permission by Helios to drive the chariot of the sun. Flying too close to the earth, he is struck down by Zeus’s lightning bolt, and is mourned by the river nymphs of the Eridanos. The story is a sort of inversion of the Icarus myth, and it receives a beautifully shaped performance here: the galloping string figuration sets the heart a-racing, while the cantabile horn second subject as the earth hoves into view is marvellously expressive. There’s palpable tension as the menacing growls of the brass herald impending danger, and if the strike of the lightning bolt isn’t quite as thrilling as Dutoit, there’s an unforced naturalness and musicality to Märkl’s performance that is characteristic of the disc as a whole and is highly rewarding.
La Jeunesse d’Hercule (1877) is the last, the most Lisztian and, at fifteen minutes, the longest of Saint-Saëns’s symphonic poems; it tells of the young Hercules’s renunciation of pleasure in favour of virtue. Worldly pleasures are vividly conjured up by a lively bacchanale (complete with exotic percussion). There’s an appropriate nobility to this performance, especially when, with a broad gesture from unison strings and wind, Hercules scorns earthly delights, followed immediately by a gentle reprise of the opening music. The work builds to a jubilant climax, with virtue triumphant over pleasure, and Märkl and his orchestra successfully sustain the momentum throughout.
Another Hercules myth is the subject of the better-known Rouet d’Omphale (1871). Hercules is punished by Hera for the accidental murder of one of his guests: he is condemned to serve Queen Omphale for three years while disguised as a woman, spinning wool for her at a wheel. The constant spinning motion, Hercules’s groans of lament and Omphale’s mocking are all perfectly brought out in this delightful performance, with characterful contributions from woodwind and brass.
The familiar strains of Danse macabre (1874), in which the figure of Death summons the dead from their graves to dance for him on All Hallows’ Eve, are clearly enjoyed by the orchestra in a splendidly alert reading. Xylophone skeletons rattle their limbs, the strings dig in for extra tone in the second phrase of the main theme on its tutti restatement, and there’s some really excellent playing from the diabolical solo violin: it’s a shame that she or he isn’t named by Naxos.
The fillers are excellent too: a rousing performance of the patriotic Marche héroïque (1870), a symbol of resistance during the siege of Paris, and loving accounts of the faux-Baroque Sarabande and Rigaudon (1892), the first exquisitely phrased and shaped by the strings (again including a particularly fine violin solo), the second highlighting some striking parallels with Stravinsky’s much later neoclassical Pulcinella (1920).
All in all, this is a joy of a disc, continuing Naxos’s valuable wider exploration of Saint-Saëns oeuvre, and a further credit to the Orchestre national de Lille under Märkl following their widely admired Debussy series for the label. At the price, it’s a highly attractive proposition for those wanting to explore further these unjustly neglected works.
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