Saint-Saëns: Dances and Ballet Music. © 2022 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd

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Dances and Ballet Music by Camille Saint-Saëns impress GERALD FENECH

'... sparkling performances brimming with beguiling melodies and exquisite harmonies.'


A child prodigy and virtuoso pianist and organist, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) excelled in Mozart and was praised for the purity and grace of his playing. Similarly, as a composer, he displayed all the French characteristics in his rather conservative musical style: neat proportions, clarity, polished expression and elegant line all reside in his best works - sonatas, symphonies and concertos. He also wrote descriptive or dramatic works, including four symphonic poems in a style influenced by Liszt and also a considerable number of sacred pieces. Indeed, his compositions came for high praise from such great names as Gounod, Rossini and Berlioz.

One can safely say that Saint-Saëns excelled in practically every genre except, maybe, one - opera. Despite writing twelve stage-works, only the 1877 Samson et Dalila has remained in the repertoire. Discounting his collaboration with Dukas in the completion of Guiraud's unfinished Fredegonde, Saint-Saëns strived very hard to make the grade with works all of his own, but in the words of critic Ronald Crichton, 'for all his experience and musical skill, Saint-Saëns "lacked the nose" of the theatre animal granted, for example, to another great French operatic composer, Jules Massenet'. Saint-Saëns' biographer James Harding comments that it is regrettable that the composer did not attempt more works of a light-hearted nature, on the lines of La Princesse jaune (The Yellow Princess), which Harding describes as like Sullivan 'with a light French touch'.

Although most of Saint-Saëns' operas have remained neglected, Crichton rates them as important in the history of French opera as 'a bridge between Meyerbeer and the serious operas of the early 1890s. In his view these operatic scores have, in general, the strengths and weaknesses of the rest of his music - 'lucid Mozartian transparency, greater care for form than for content ... There is a certain emotional dryness, invention is sometimes thin, but the workmanship is impeccable'. Maybe the most apt comment is that of Alan Blyth: 'Saint-Saëns certainly learned much from Handel, Gluck, Berlioz, Wagner and the Verdi of Aida, but from these excellent models he forged his own personal style.'

Well, this album presents a selection of ballet and incidental music from three of his operas and a play. From Samson et Dalila (1877) we hear the famous and exotic 'Bacchanale' and 'Dance of the Priests'.

Listen — Saint-Saëns: Danse des prêtresses de Dagon (Samson et Dalila)
(8.574463 track 22, 0:00-0:42) ℗ 2022 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

Henry VIII (1883) drew from Saint-Saëns music of regal solemnity, with plenty of the colourful scoring that was praised by Gounod. In the Ballet Divertissement the composer even gives us echoes of Tudor music. Henry VIII also regales us with five other orchestral pieces full of descriptive music that keeps the listener totally engrossed in the story of Anne Boleyn and her King.

Listen — Saint-Saëns: Gigue et finale (Henry VIII)
(8.574463 track 21, 0:00-0:50) ℗ 2022 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

The lukewarm reception to Étienne Marcel (1879) came as a bitter blow to the composer, but the customary ballet includes a strong element of delightful fourteenth century pastiche.

Listen — Saint-Saëns: Entrée des Bohémiens et Bohémiennes (Étienne Marcel)
(8.574463 track 5, 0:00-0:54) ℗ 2022 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

The incidental music to Parysatis (1902) received tumultuous acclaim, and with its use of crotales (antique finger-cymbals) it immediately captured the imagination of the audience. Indeed, this is Saint-Saëns' most Far Eastern creation, and the luscious soundworld of the music fits this Persian Queen to perfection. (Parysatis was the mother of Artaxerxes.)

Listen — Saint-Saëns: Modéré (sans lenteur) (Parysatis)
(8.574463 track 14, 2:59-3:53) ℗ 2022 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

Jun Märkl's baton is as magical as Saint-Saëns' pen, and his wholehearted advocacy for these scores draws some sparkling performances brimming with beguiling melodies and exquisite harmonies. This is not the Saint-Saëns we know (apart from Samson's 'Bacchanale'), but certainly just as enticing. Sound and annotations are first-rate.

Copyright © 27 November 2022 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta







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