OAE: Saint-Saëns

Saint-Saëns: Sounds for the End of a Century
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor 
Steven Isserlis, cello, James McVinnie, organ 
Royal Festival Hall
, 26 January 2023

Phaéton symphonic poem, Op.39
Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.33
Danse macabre

Symphony No.3 in C minor (‘Organ Symphony’)

The first stop on the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s 2023 ‘grand tour’ from London to Mongolia was the Paris of organist and composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921). Towards the end of the 19th century, French music looked to create its own style, breaking away from the German musical influence of the time. Saint-Saëns, although retaining the influence of Franz Liszt, was part of this but he also looked back into the past, notably the music of Rameau (1683–1764) as well as acknowledging the music of the much younger Ravel. This concert of compositions from the early 1870s to the mid-1880s paired the well-known Danse macabre and the 3rd (Organ) Symphony following the lesser-known (to me, at least) Cello Concerto and the symphonic poem Phaéton.

This was the sort of programme that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment excels in, as they bring the delightfully characterful sounds of their carefully chosen instruments to the romantic repertoire. One example of this was in the Danse macabre which featured their principal timpanist Adrian Bending’s reconstruction of a Strohfiedel, the Swiss xylophone so named because the wooden keys rest on beds of straw. Saint-Saëns was the first composer to use a xylophone in an orchestra. It was played on this occasion by Matthew Dickensen who must have taken a while to get used to the unusual layout of the instrument.

The OAE’s use of instruments of the period brought clarity to the texture of all four pieces, but perhaps most notably in the concluding 3rd Symphony, the so-called ‘Organ’ Symphony. This enhanced the view of Saint-Saëns as a master of orchestral colour and texture, as well as his innovative use of symphonic structure. In his pre-concert talk, ‘Saint-Saëns: Reactionary or Radical?’ Robert Samuels of the Open University (who were having a study day with the OAE) suggested that the whole symphony was in an expanded Sonata form, the four movements (which are divided into two main groups) representing the first and second themes, development section, and recapitulation.

It was inevitable that the previous three pieces would be seen as a mere prelude to the Organ Symphony, but there was much to applaud in their performance. This is the first time I have seen Maxim Emelyanychev conduct, although he has previously directed the OAE at Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House. His youthful exuberance and energy were combined with a commendably clear beat and active involvement with the music and the musicians – an important factor, I suggest. when directing the OAE. His early music credentials include his direction of the period instrument ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, so he is obviously on the same wavelength as the OAE players.

The opening symphonic poem Phaéton is the only piece I can recall that calls for three timpanists, their moment of glory coming when all three play a chord of fff trills to signal the arrival of Zeus to put a halt to Phaéton‘s solar joyriding. The Cello Concerto was given a rather delicate reading by Steven Isserlis, matching the attention to detail of the accompanying OAE. He relished the contrasts between the scurrying flourishes and the more lyrical moments in the opening movement. There was similar contrast between the flighty mute strings accompaniment to the expressive cello solo central movement. The touching encore was The Swan from Carnival of the Animals with Maxim Emelyanychev playing the piano, acknowledging the sad fact that this was what should have been Jacqueline du Pré’s 78th birthday.

The second half opened with the Danse macabre with the demonic violin soloist Matthew Truscott standing in the middle of the rear woodwind row. It was a well-chosen companion for the Organ Symphony, which also uses the distinctive Dies Irae melody. If there had been a slight reluctance to release the orchestra’s full power in the earlier three pieces, most of us had worked out why. That moment came, of course, with the monumental organ chord at the beginning of the final Maestoso, a shattering sound that was by far the loudest we had so far heard. And it was worth the wait. In what is very clearly a symphony with organ, rather than an organ symphony, James McVinnie did exactly what Saint-Saëns seems to have intended, with his beautifully controlled low murmurs in the second section contrasted with the flamboyant final section where the organ unleashes its power. It has to be admitted that the organ part is not the most difficult to play – in contrast, for example, to James McVinnie’s excellent performance on continuo organ and harpsichord a few days earlier, reviewed here. But his choice of registrations and his control of volume and timbre was spot on. It was good that the first pianist Xiaowen Shang was acknowledged by Maxim Emelyanychev – along with Andrew West, they have a tricky roles to play.

The concert was recorded by the BBC and will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Tuesday, 28 March. It will be well worth a listen, but do warn the neighbours.