You can almost bank on a new album of Camille Saint-Saëns’ orchestral music including either the Organ Symphony (No 3) or the 'Bacchanale' from Samson et Dalila. The Utah Symphony’s new Saint-Saëns disc, the first installment of a projected three-part survey of the composer’s neglected larger symphonic output (for Hyperion), actually includes both of them.
That turns out to be a good thing. First, because each of those pieces come off with rousing intensity and lots of color. Second, because the rest of the recording is devoted to a terrific performance of the (very) obscure (and substantial) Trois tableaux symphoniques d’après La foi.
Saint-Saëns wrote his incidental music to Eugène Briuex’s play La foi in 1909, more than thirty years after completing the Organ Symphony. Stylistically, it comes from the same hand. There are lots of atmospheric touches, like the first movement’s exotic percussion scoring (which includes a sistrum) and the second’s striking use of harmonium with harp. Harmonically, Saint-Saëns’ late language suggests a composer moving freely towards the fringes of tonality even while, structurally, the score’s outer movements feel a bit episodic.
That said, there’s lots going on in the piece that catches the ear. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find it played with greater authority or technical refinement than the Utahans deliver (even as the present recording seems to be the only one in the catalogue of the Trois tableaux symphoniques: suffice it to say, it sets the bar high).
As for the rest, well, the Utahans play the 'Bacchanale' exuberantly: the final refrain is about as slinky and bombastic as you might want. And their performance of the Symphony is no slouch, either.
Paul Jacobs is the organist and he delivers his part (which is a subordinate, not a soloistic, one) with a kind of understated majesty. The second movement simply glows, while the finale drives with unrelenting vigor.
Thierry Fischer conducts it all with a sure hand. The Symphony is smartly paced, thoughtfully shaped, and beautifully balanced. Those same qualities mark the Trois tableaux symphoniques and the 'Bacchanale'—indeed, this is Saint-Saëns played with power and purpose. Can’t wait for the next installments to come along.