John Quinn
MusicWeb International
January 2019

Thierry Fischer became Music Director of the Utah Symphony in 2009 and together they’ve made a number of recordings; I’ve heard them in a couple of Mahler performances, for instance. Fischer has recorded for the Hyperion label in the past, during his time at the helm of various British orchestras; these included a particularly fine CD of music by Florent Schmitt. However, though I stand to be corrected, I think this Saint-Saëns disc is the first occasion on which the Utah Symphony has graced the Hyperion catalogue.

Previous releases from Utah that I’ve encountered have been taken from live concerts in their home hall in Salt Lake City and this new disc follows in that lineage. It marks, I think, the start of a projected Saint-Saëns survey and it’s no surprise that such a series should kick off with one of the French composer’s best-loved works. We’re not exactly short of recordings of the Third Symphony—there are already twenty-two listed in the MusicWeb International Masterworks Index and there are others which we have never reviewed. However, there’s always room for another good recording of this highly attractive work.

The Third bears the nickname ‘Organ’ on account of the important part for that instrument in the work’s second and fourth movements. Here, the organist is the highly-regarded American organist, Paul Jacobs. I was mildly surprised that the booklet contains no information about the organ on which Mr Jacobs plays. Actually, I couldn’t find any details about an organ when I looked online for information about the Abravanel Hall. Maybe this fairly modern hall, which opened in 1979, doesn’t have an organ in situ—there’s no sign of one in the photos of the auditorium—and perhaps an electronic instrument was imported for the occasion.

Thierry Fischer leads a very enjoyable account of the symphony. The Utah Symphony offers a good deal of deft playing in the first movement’s Allegro moderato and there’s also strength in the playing when required. The lovely Poco adagio is characterised by some elegant string playing and the discreet organ contribution is very well integrated. Fisher judges the pace and mood admirably; the music sounds solemn and dignified with just the right degree of breadth. This is a distinguished performance. There’s well-judged thrust in the Scherzo and I like the crispness which is in evidence during the sparkling account of the trio section. Paul Jacobs ushers in the finale with commanding chords and when the famous big tune is played for the first time his soft interjections are ideally weighted. The tutti rendition of the tune is suitably majestic without sounding pompous. The Allegro that follows is dashing and colourful and then the end of the symphony is exciting, raising one’s spirits—Paul Jacobs’ final descending scale on the organ pedals adds the necessary frisson. I don’t think this performance quite supersedes my personal favourite versions—by Charles Munch and the DG recording by James Levine—but it’s pretty impressive and I enjoyed it very much.

If the Third Symphony is among Saint-Saëns’ best-known compositions, the Trois tableaux symphoniques d’après La foi must surely be among his least familiar creations: I had never heard of the work, let alone heard it for myself. It’s been recorded at least once before, though: Michael Herman lists it as a filler to a 1995 Pan Classics release of a performance of the Second Symphony by the Basel Symphony Orchestra and Ronald Zollman. I learned from Roger Nichols’ excellent booklet note that in 1908 Saint-Saëns was invited by Prince Albert I of Monaco to compose incidental music for a new play, La foi (Faith) by Eugène Brieux (1858-1932). The play was first staged in 1909. It was set in Upper Egypt during the time of the Middle Kingdom and, says, Nichols, ‘contains discussions of the powers of religion and of the limits that society should set on these’.

It sounds riveting stuff and perhaps it’s unsurprising that the play should have sunk without trace. Before leaving the background, I can’t resist passing on a nugget of information which may be new to readers, as it was to me until I read Roger Nichols’ note. It seems that we can add to the list of Saint-Saëns’ achievements that he was the composer of the first known film score; this was for a 1908 film, L’assassinat du duc de Guise and it was this that led to the invitation to compose music for La foi.

Though Brieux’s play has not survived, Saint-Saëns decided to rescue some of his favourite passages from the score and weave them into the Trois tableaux symphoniques and I’m jolly glad that he did because the music is excellent and too good to lose forever. Wisely, Roger Nichols doesn’t attempt to relate back to the play itself the music that we hear and I enjoyed the Trois tableaux as ‘pure’ music.

We’re told that the music is laid out for a large orchestra but, in fact, Saint-Saëns uses his forces with considerable restraint and much of what we hear is quite delicately scored—and highly effective. All three tableaux are strong on melodic invention. Apparently, the composer wove into his score a number of Egyptian melodies that he’d noted down during his quite frequent winter holidays in that country. The music of the first tableau is atmospheric and, for the most part, fairly subdued. My ear was caught by several passages, not least at about 6:00 where a yearning melody is played by a solo cello—the soloist plays most poetically—before the violins take up the tune. A little later on, around 8:00, we hear a passage which is exotically scored for woodwind with lightly tinkling percussion and a rippling harp. Almost out of nowhere, it seems, there’s a short, grand ending where for the first time the music raises its voice.

The second tableau sounds to me as if it could be intended as nocturnal music. I wonder if the fragile flute melody with which the piece opens is Egyptian in origin. The tune—and Saint-Saëns’ scoring of it—is quite haunting as it passes to cor anglais and then to other woodwind instruments in turn. There’s a good deal of delicate scoring in this piece. The third and last tableau is the most forthright of the three; here, the music is more outgoing in nature. This movement achieves a big, grand conclusion which is quite impressive and which, unlike the ending of the first tableau, doesn’t come as a surprise. The Trois tableaux were well worth reviving. Fischer and his orchestra make a very fine job indeed of the music. There’s considerable finesse in the playing, which is just what the music needs. I’m glad that this little-known music was included in this album; I wonder if it’s the intention to include similarly unfamiliar pieces in future releases in the series.

Given the Egyptian connections with the Trois tableaux the presence of the Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila is very appropriate. In this well-known bon-bon from the opera, the ‘Eastern’ influences are much more overt in the music than is the case with the Trois tableaux. Fischer and the Utah Symphony deliver it with panache.

This is a most enjoyable CD which augurs well if, as I believe, it’s to be the first in a series. The recorded sound is good and Roger Nichols’ note is valuable. Encore, s’il vous plait.