This intelligently planned, well played and excellently recorded programme presents three major facets of the composer’s career: the child prodigy, the master orchestrator, and the pillar of the Establishment. Even if his A major Symphony, written around the age of 15, is not quite in the Mendelssohn league (though the slow movement suggests that Saint-Saëns had studied his music with some care), it’s a remarkable and delightful piece, echoing Haydn as well as Mozart, whose four-note ‘Jupiter tag’ is duly borrowed, as it would be over 30 years later in the Third Symphony. This splendid, ultra-Romantic work has been much recorded of late, I suspect more for its considerable intrinsic value than with any idea of producing a radically new interpretation.
The only new things in Marc Soustrot’s reading are to do with tempo and, in my view, are not to the work’s benefit. Taking the F major repeat of the first movement’s second subject at an unmarked slower tempo seems unnecessary, while playing the poco adagio at around half the indicated speed is going too far, even if conductors do seem to agree that the composer’s marking is on the fast side.
Le rouet d’Omphale is nicely done, though without the violins’ long, expressive diminuendo up to the final pianissimo; and in the scherzo of the early Symphony, an attempt at giving the trio a separate tempo doesn’t work because the two speeds are too close to each other, suggesting merely an ungainly wobble.