One of the mysteries of all art is often the disconnect between the artist and their works (or conductors and theirs), a discussion that will never end and isn’t my focus here — except to say that sometimes it’s not all super serious conversations like Wagner and his antisemitism, or Ansermet and his, or people like the lately departed James Levine, who despite being a pretty well confirmed chronic sexual criminal, was inexplicable lauded in obits by people like Tim Page (whose editor, Marty Baron, should have spiked this piece, which aside from the headline, and a couple of sentences, whitewashed Levine’s horrid lifetime of pretty well substantiated criminal abuse).
But enough about that. Here I thought I’d offer some lighter material, but also concerning a composer whose temperament, by all accounts, didn’t really match the tenor of his works, which range of course. From the weighty and powerful, but also to the downright jolly and delightful, which is where I’d like to focus for a little. With Saint-Saëns you have to acknowledge the biggies, of course, mostly the monumental Organ Symphony, which deserves all its accolades for being both a bravura showpiece and just a good fun listen. I’ve got a few favorites (this is a piece where it’s really hard to talk about a “definitive” recording — but for me the Paray and the Pretre, both pretty early recordings with astounding sonics, which this piece almost demands, especially given the whopper finale where the organ pipes in (sorry). Karajan’s digital record is also pretty fantastic, especially for its final quickening at the very end — and despite that the Organ used, which was the Notre Dame — was recorded separately and edited in (it sounds fine to me, and it’s a little curmudgeonly to bemoan such things, but oh well). It really should be a burst of joy, not a misplaced Also Sprach opening, and ironically I really do think it’s HvK who gets this right for all the claptrap about him and his one-size-fits-all approach (a total canard, obvious to anyone who takes the time to actually listen to his records.
This symphony, with all its sonic boom, made for a natural choice for the quadraphonic format, and it was RCA that put it down in 4 channel, using Ormandy and the Phildelphians (a natural choice) with good old E. Power Biggs on organ. I’ve got in on 8 track, where the channel separation and the overall impact are great fun. (And you have to love the wacky circus cover art.) Ormandy returned again to the piece in one of his last records for Telarc, which is another audiophile favorite, though it doesn’t stand up for me as a performance. If you want audiophile for this work, and you want boring old stereo, go with Paray. That one, from decades earlier (1958!) holds up and sounds just as fantastic on my original FR1. Martinon also recorded a quad version an disc for EMI, which is perfectly good, and plays great, although the separation — as ironically is almost always the case — is better on 8 track, disastrous design aside!
The piano concertos include both a similarly weighty popular work, the Second, which is not alone in the cycle in having some delightfully airy movements. Here I favor Dutoit and Rogé, and I have a German Decca box that sounds great. In the Second we get this side of the composer’s style in the second movement, but it’s found throughout the other concertos all over the place. Rubinstein recorded the Second (only) for RCA, and I’ve also got that on quad 8 track, in one of the odd examples of how these early Living Stereo records were recorded in multichannel before the
engineers actually understood how stereo would work, and so years later we actually got those recordings in true multichannel. The recording above, though, is from an interesting live performance he gave of the work at almost the same time as the RCA studio one, and is even a bit more spontaneous.
And speaking of piano works, of course there’s the Carnival of the Animals, which (case in point) despite probably being the composer’s most well known piece, was suppressed by him, ostensibly because it was written only to be performed by his friends — but also probably because he deemed it insufficiently serious for his persona (which grew ever more grumpy as he aged and his contemporaries abandoned the classical forms he preferred). My favorite here is an unusual choice, the Peter Katin and Philip Fowke version on EMI/Classics for Pleasure, still available on CD apparently. It beats any of the big name recordings, including Previn and Argerich and all the rest, for its sheer delight and joy. The dinosaurs never sounded to jolly, nor the aquarium so shimmering and other-worldly. The finale is an outburst of joy from players, channeling something from this composer who otherwise seemed almost afraid to let us know he had this in him. (I’ll leave the who closeted-sexual orientation business out of it.)
Another example of how Saint-Saëns let his guard down and just wrote good old fashioned happy music is on one of his most prized discs among audiophiles, the 1980 Dutoit Danse Macabre on Decca/London, which totally deserves its reputation for amazing pre-digital (barely) sound and acoustics, but also a completely seamless ensemble performance throughout and flawless direction in east of the pieces. My pick isn’t the Danse, though, and not because it’s recorded so often, but the first track, Phaeton, which has only been put down on disc (vinyl or CD) a handful of times. I haven’t bothered with any of the others because Dutoit’s is such a joy, real joie de vivre material if ever there was. And since I mentioned the Danse, I should mention my favorite there, which is a classic early
stereo, on a Martinon Decca/London compilation of French works. Mine’s a UK Treasury reissue but sounds great.
Lastly an almost completely unknown, and almost completely unrecorded piece, also a pure delight, the old grump’s Piano Trio No. 1. He wrote two, but the first it more coherent and just a better piece overall. The first movement in particular captures the same spirit in the Carnival and in some of those piano concerto allegros and prestos. I’m pretty sure there only one (!) version on disc, a totally
disappointing and clearly underrehearsed recording on Vox. But this one on Naxos shows what the work can be, and why it deserves to be heard more often.