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Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Africa & other orchestral works

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Geoffrey Simon (conductor)
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Originally issued on CalCACDS4031
Recording details: January 1993
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Tim Handley
Engineered by Nicholas Parker
Release date: April 2007
Total duration: 77 minutes 1 seconds
 

One of a pair of distinctive Saint-Saëns recordings, this album made with the London Philharmonic Orchestra features several rarely heard works as well as the premiere recording of Saint-Saëns’s own arrangement for tenor and orchestra of his iconic Danse macabre—origninally a song for voice and piano to a poem Henri Cazalis before its expansion into the celebrated tone poem.

During a career spanning three-quarters of a century, Saint-Saëns in his youth earned the admiration of Berlioz, yet he out-lived Debussy. Like so many of the world’s great composers, Saint-Saëns took to music almost from the cradle. By the age of six he was writing songs and piano pieces and at ten he was playing Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos in public. His prowess on the organ led to an early appointment at the Church of the Madeleine, where he was to occupy the post of organist for nearly twenty years. As a student he wrote four symphonies, two of which received performances, and in the 1860s he turned to the stage, although of his thirteen operas only Samson and Delilah has held a place in the repertoire.

Liszt’s tone-poems inspired Saint-Saëns to produce a number of highly colourful orchestral works of his own—Danse macabre being the most popular—and his vast output included five piano concertos, in each of which he appeared as a highly successful soloist.

He was concerned to maintain the serious side of his output and would have been horrified at the success of The carnival of the animals, in his view a 'private joke' which was not published in full until after his death (only 'The swan' saw the light of day during the composer’s lifetime).

Saint-Saëns’s own musical credo was summed up as follows: 'The artist who does not feel completely satisfied by elegant lines, harmonious colours and a beautiful succession of chords does not understand the art of music.' Although not all his music reaches the heights of inspiration, many of the orchestral works in particular are clearly scored by the hand of a master.

Africa – Fantasie for piano and orchestra Op 89
In addition to his full-scale piano concertos, Saint-Saëns wrote several other works for piano and orchestra, of which his Africa Fantasy is quite the most delightful.

He began sketching the music in the winter of 1890 while on holiday in the Canary Islands. Here he attempted to ensure complete solitude for the task by adopting a false name, but his efforts at warding off the unwelcome attentions of hotel guests and staff were unsuccessful, since their interest became even more aroused by the curiously solitary behaviour of the mysterious, bearded 'businessman' in their midst. In the event, Saint-Saëns had to move to another hotel in order to escape the impertinent inquisitiveness to which he was being subject, and was only then able to continue in peace with his jolly Africa Fantasy.

This sonic picture-postcard scherzo, which requires a virtuoso’s technique for the execution of its dazzlingly difficult solo part, is a brilliant kaleidoscope of rhythms and colours, and features a Tunisian folk-melody which forms the basis of its vivid conclusion.

Parysatis – Airs de ballet
Parysatis, a play described as 'a spectacular drama based on the life of the bloodthirsty queen of ancient Persia', had its first performance on 17 August 1902 at the southern French resort of Béziers, not far north of the Spanish border. Four years earlier, a rich impresario had acquired an enormous bull-ring there and converted it into an amphitheatre, to be the centre of attraction at a regular music festival. Although Saint-Saëns had a horror of blood-sports, the acoustics of the open-air stadium were so good that he was persuaded to inaugurate the first Béziers Festival with a lyric tragedy entitled Déjanire, based on the life of Hercules. The annual festival regularly focused on his music, and the town itself honoured the composer with the 'Avenue Saint-Saëns'.

The incidental music to Jane Dieulafoy’s drama Parysatis called for a large orchestra, vocal soloists and a chorus, and was received with tumultuous acclaim. The tuneful 'Airs de ballet', which consists of a brief introduction and three exotic dances, was published separately from the complete score and uses harps, 'crotales' (antique finger-cymbals) and striking groupings of winds and strings to produce a sequence of sensual, eastern abandon.

Jota aragonese Op 64
The theme of this vivacious, short work will instantly be recognised by anyone familiar with the Spanish Overture No 1 by Glinka. In 1844, the Russian composer was on a tour of Europe and at the urging of Franz Liszt, his champion and admirer, Glinka made a point of visiting Spain in order to study and absorb the folk-music of the country. His Spanish Overture is a 'Capriccio brillante' based on the 'jota aragonesa' (a traditional Spanish folk-dance depicting rustic courtship) which he heard from a guitarist in Valladolid. Not to be outdone, Liszt himself used the same melody in his Rhapsodie espagnole—one of his many piano works based on the various 'National Airs' of Spain, Italy, Hungary, France, England and so on—and this was later arranged for piano and orchestra by Busoni.

Saint-Saëns’s version of this music is actually described as a 'transcription' and was published in 1881. It is a scintillating number, delightfully scored, with castanets and tambourines adding appropriate local colour, and has been surprisingly overlooked both in the concert-hall and on record, where it now makes its debut.

Samson et Dalilah – Grand Fantasy
It is something seldom heard nowadays: a colourful, self-contained 'pot-pourri' of tunes from a celebrated opera, arranged for orchestra but without any singers. Such creations were extremely popular a hundred years ago: Sir Henry Wood’s very first Promenade Concert in 1895 featured a 'Grand Selection' from Carmen, while 'orchestral fantasias' on such operas as Faust, Cavalleria Rusticana and Il Trovatore were the staples of concert fare at that time.

Here then is a revival of a splendid confection dreamed up by Alexandre Luigini, the composer of the Ballet égyptien—one of those pieces which everyone knows upon hearing but cannot quite put a name to. Luigini was born in France of Italian origin and while still in his teens conducted and composed for several French ballet companies. In 1877, he was appointed conductor of the Grand Theatre Orchestra at Lyons, and in that same year Samson and Delilah received its first performance under Liszt’s sponsorship at Weimar, although Paris had to wait until 1891 before hearing what was to become the most popular of Saint-Saëns’s thirteen operas. Luigini’s Grand Fantasy encapsulates some of the finest pages of the opera without in any way being inhibited by the original sequence of the plot: it launches straight into the finale where Delilah and her fellow-Philistines are making sacrifices in the Temple of Dagon. A brief link leads us into Delilah’s seductive Act 1 aria When Twilight is Falling, played here on the cornet, an instrument that was much in demand for solo numbers in the popular concerts of Luigini’s day. The brass section is retained for the Act 1 Spring Chorus, and then the listener is lulled into a state of anticipation with a familiar oboe cadenza. The unwary will think that this heralds the celebrated Bacchanale, but Luigini is just teasing: what we actually get is Samson’s stentorian aria Pray to God, also from Act 1. This gives way to the music of the Love Duet, after which the massed violins blossom forth with Softly Wakes My Heart, perhaps Saint-Saëns’s best-known and most moving operatic melody. It remains only for Luigini to concoct a stirring ending—he chooses Samson’s exhortation Let Us Rise Once Again from Act 1, bringing what can only be described as a 'fun piece' to a rousing conclusion.

It should be noted that owners of ancient 78s might just have an old Regal recording of this music on which Percy Pitt conducted the BBC Wireless Orchestra. However, that was a heavily abridged performance, tailored no doubt for the four-minute sides. This version is absolutely complete, justifying 'World Premiere Recording' status!

Tarentelle in A minor Op 6
Here we find Saint-Saëns in Mendelssohnian mood, or perhaps 'Rossinian' would be more appropriate, since this sparkling tarantelle was, in fact, given its first performance in 1857 at the Parisian apartment to which Rossini had retired, and to whom the 22-year-old Saint-Saëns had just been introduced. At that particular soirée, the celebrated Italian composer mischievously pretended that the work was his own but when the assembled listeners had finished complimenting him on the 'masterpiece' they had just heard, Rossini took Saint-Saëns’s hand and replied: 'I entirely agree. But I didn’t write it—this gentleman is the composer!'

On that first occasion, of course, the two soloists had a piano accompaniment. This was duly transformed by the composer into the exciting orchestration heard here that whirls and weaves the two soloists along like a dancing, spinning top.

Sarabande et rigaudon Op 93
This 'concert pair' of orchestral dances dates from 1892 when the composer was 57. Ancient dances clearly appealed to Saint-Saëns—he had written a five-movement Suite for orchestra nearly thirty years earlier which also featured a sarabande.

This particular dance-form originated in sixteenth-century Spain in triple-time, either slow or fast, and Saint-Saëns’s Sarabande, Op 93, with its distinctive emphasis on the second beat of the bar, is marked 'andante sostenuto—molto expressivo'. It is written for string orchestra and violin soloist and its heartfelt style is well-contrasted with the lively rigaudon which follows. This was a French folk-dance of the seventeenth century, and Saint-Saëns adds the woodwinds, brass and timpani for a vivacious little piece which has about it something of the quality of Bizet’s Symphony in C.

Danse macabre
Although Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre is one of his most popular orchestral works, he did in fact write it first as a song for voice and piano in 1873 to a poem by Henri Cazalis. As well as expanding it into his celebrated tone-poem, Saint-Saëns also arranged the original for voice and orchestra, and it is this rarely performed version we hear next, in its first recording.

Cazalis’s poem is indeed ‘macabre’: 'Zig-a-zig-a-zig'—Death is tapping the tomb with his heel at midnight, playing an air on his out-of-tune fiddle—'zig-a-zig-a-zag'. The winter wind blows, and the night is gloomy—groans can be heard in the trees. White skeletons dart through the shadows, running and jumping in their great shrouds … 'Zig-a-zig-a-zig'—They each jig about, and one hears the clatter of the dancers’ bones … A lascivious couple sits down on the moss as if to re-live the sweet-nothings of yesteryear … 'Zig-a-zig-a-zag'—Death scrapes endlessly on his sour instrument. A veil is dropped, the dancer is nude, her young partner squeezes her lovingly; the lady, they say, is a marchioness or baroness, and the young man a common wheelwright. Horror! Look how she’s carrying on—as if the oaf was a baron! … 'Zig-a-zig-a-zig'—What a hullabaloo! These rings of corpses are all holding hands!—'Zig-a-zig-a-zag'—One sees kings leaping about in the crowd with thieves … But hush! All at once the dance stops. Elbowing each other aside, they rush, they flee; the cock has crowed. Oh what a beautiful night for the poor of the world. Long live Death—and Equality!'

Marche militaire française
The Suite algérienne of 1880 has parallels with Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Caucasian Sketches: each has four movements; each is inspired by exotic locales; and each has a final march which has become its most popular number and thus frequently extracted, as here, for separate performance.

The complete Algerian Suite incorporates references to traditional Arab melodies, with the finale acknowledging Algeria’s absorption into Metropolitan France during the long period of military colonisation. In his book Saint-Saëns and his Circle, James Harding puts forward the view that this French Military March is almost 'an unintentional portrait of Saint-Saëns as he had become in the 1880s. While the buoyant rhythms hustle nervously on, it is possible to visualise the man himself—the bird-like gestures, the quick and eager speech that never succeeded in keeping pace with his thoughts, and the urge to have done with a work because the idea for another was already plaguing his restless brain.'

La muse et le poète Op 132
A composition which was the product of Saint-Saëns’s old age comes next. He was 75 when he wrote this Grand Duo for violin and cello in memory of his friend Madame Henry Caruette, and it received its first performance in London on 7 June 1910. Like many of his works, he wrote it while abroad on holiday—in this case, at Luxor in Egypt.

The music takes the form of a wistful, rhapsodic discourse which provides scope for much rubato and free tempo, embracing romantic moods on the one hand, and skittishness and passion on the other, with each instrument providing a calming influence on the more urgent outbursts of its partner. Although described as 'a conversation between the two instruments rather than a competition between two virtuosi', the technical demands are considerable, and bring to mind the Double Concerto of Brahms written some two decades earlier.

Valse from Ascanio
Ascanio is a five-act opera (Saint-Saëns’s seventh excursion into the field) which had its first Paris performance in 1890. Ascanio was based on a play by Paul Meurice, which in turn derived from a biography Meurice had written on the life of Benvenuto Cellini, the sixteenth-century Italian artist and sculptor.

For the opera’s score, Saint-Saëns atmospherically evoked the world of the French court of François I with ancient melodies he discovered in the published music of the time. The Ballet Divertissement, which was performed during the course of the opera, represents the mythical age of Venus and Diana, Bacchus and Psyche, and concludes with a dashing and jaunty Waltz for the entire corps de ballet.

Edward Johnson © 2019

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