Lucid Culture: World-Class Symphonic Grandeur From an Unlikely Spot
Playing devil’s advocate, here’s how Roger Nichols introduces the liner notes for the Utah Symphony’s sumptuous new recording of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony: ”Igor Stravinsky remembered Saint-Saëns as ‘a sharp little man’, demonstrably unimpressed by the sounds emanating from the orchestra in The Rite of Spring. Succeeding generations have perpetuated this view of Saint-Saëns as a carping pedant, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who excelled in providing music that was all surface and little content.”
Nichols quickly goes on to explain how that perception is only part of the picture. In the days when it was even more customary (and often necessary) for composers to rely on commissions from the entitled classes to pay the rent, guys like Saint-Saëns would churn out one predictably cheery, cliched score after another. After all, the landed gentry of 1880s France had no more interest in anything challenging or cutting edge than the tattooed newcomers to Bushwick and Bed-Stuy do now. But as anybody who’s heard Carnival of the Animals or Danse Macabre – each written for Saint-Saëns’ family – will agree, there’s a whole different side to his work.
This is a rare recording – streaming at Spotify – where the shorter pieces on the program actually upstage the centerpiece. Conductor Thierry Fischer and the ensemble give Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 every bit of opulent ostentatiousness it deserves, a fullscale orchestral work supercharged with both organ and piano, the icing on a many-layered sonic cake. As classical party music goes, this is about as good as it gets. Recorded live in concert just over a year ago on the group’s home turf, the sound quality is magnificent. Solos throughout the orchestra, from James Hall’s oboe to Louise Vickerman’s harp, are precise and emphatic. Exchanges between various sections of the group are seamless, and the dynamics cover as much ground as a symphonic ensemble possibly can. And the hooks come at you, over and over again: just when you’re humming one, another will jump in and displace it.