It is rare to find all four symphonic poems that Saint-Saëns composed on one CD. I had to go back to Neeme Järvi on Chandos issued in 2012 and before him Charles Dutoit (Decca). My first exposure to these works was from a treasured LP with the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos in the 1950s. Thus, it is good to have them all again here in idiomatic performances, captured in exemplary sound. Two of the pieces appeared on a disc I reviewed in 2015 also on Naxos in Marc Soustrot’s Saint-Saëns symphony series. I rather liked his Danse macabre, but was less enamoured with La Jeunesse d’Hercule, which accompanied the early Symphony in F, finding it overextended for its material (review). What a difference a couple of minutes make! Soustrot’s lasts over 18 minutes, whereas Märkl accomplishes everything in less than 16. I still find this the weakest of the four symphonic poems, but at least Märkl manages to keep my attention. I can really appreciate the beautiful string introduction with muted violins and the woodwinds’ playful theme later on. The bacchanale that follows may be tame compared to the famous one in Samson and Delilah, but it adds interest to the score which has echoes of both Liszt and Mendelssohn.
Saint-Saëns’ attraction to the myth of Hercules, as the subject of La Jeunesse d’Hercule, is also present in the first of his symphonic poems, Le Rouet d’Omphale. Naxos’ depiction on the
CD booklet cover of a Hercules sculpture makes some sense in this context, though here Hercules is punished for the murder of one of his guests and there were no spinning wheels before the Middle Ages. Apart from Danse macabre, Le Rouet d’Omphale appears more frequently on programmes than the other two tone poems, which is not all that often. Märkl clearly has the measure of this music. His Lille strings and woodwinds characterize the spinning wheel with lightness before the trombones portray the lamenting and groaning Hercules.
The true warhorse among these works, of course, is Danse macabre. While I appreciated Soustrot’s light touch, his account now seems to lack character compared to Märkl’s. I like this new performance even better than the older ones by Ormandy and Dutoit. Ormandy indeed seems rather heavy and slow, whereas Märkl comes up newly minted. His scordatura violin is just about perfect, as is the splendid horn solo halfway through the piece. The xylophone can be clearly heard, the oboe’s “cock’s crow” is excellent, and the loud percussion near the close is striking in its impact. This is the best Danse macabre I’ve heard in years.
The disc opens with Phaéton, the second of Saint-Saëns’ symphonic poems. The story behind this work concerns the son of the Greek sun god, Helios. To prove that he descended from Helios, Phaéton asks his father’s permission to drive his chariot for one day. Unfortunately, he is not able to control the horses and the earth becomes in danger of being burnt up by the sun. Therefore, Zeus strikes him down with a lightning bolt and he dies. The work ends with his funeral. Liszt’s influence is everywhere present in Phaéton, from the rhythmic string motif depicting the galloping horses to the brass interjections and funereal coda. At the same time, Phaéton possesses French sensibility rather than Lisztian bombast. The tone poem is brilliantly performed here with special mention owed to the horns and woodwinds.
This disc is filled out with the catchy Marche héroïque Saint-Saëns composed during the 1870-71 siege of Paris, as a symbol of resistance, and two dances he conceived in the Baroque style for a new edition of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s comédie-ballet, Le Malade imaginaire. These dances, Sarabande and Rigaudon, apparently served their function well, because they do not sound at all like Saint-Saëns but like typical nineteenth-century orchestrations of Baroque music. While these fillers are performed very well, it is a pity some other pieces, such as the tuneful Marche militaire française weren’t included. There was plenty of space on the disc. Never mind. Märkl’s idiomatic and appealing accounts of every work on the programme and Dominic Wells’ worthwhile notes, along with Naxos’ modest price, make this CD an irresistible bargain.
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