Ulf Schirmer conducts Saint-Saëns’s Proserpine

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Saint-Saens
LABELS: BR Klassik
ALBUM TITLE: Saint-Saëns
WORKS: Proserpine
PERFORMER: Véronique Gens, Marie-Adeline Henry, Frédéric Antoun, Andrew Foster-Williams, Jean Teitgen; Flemish Radio Choir; Munich Radio Orchestra/Ulf Schirmer
CATALOGUE NO: ES 1027

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This is the 15th unfamiliar French opera recorded under the auspices of Palazzetto Bru Zane and, of the ones I’ve heard, probably the best. As always, it comes in an elegant book-sized package including excellent notes on the work’s history and musical structure.

The version recorded is the 1899 revision of the 1887 original, and we learn that Saint-Saëns had to weather the standard critical complaint of those times that he had succumbed to Wagner, which is true to the extent that he uses leitmotifs and avoids long, singable tunes in favour of continous arioso. In the first of the four acts this does make for hard listening. But Act II, set in a convent, and the two following acts, where the drama really begins to take hold, moved the composer to distinctly higher achievements through orchestral colouring and more readily appreciable climaxes – I couldn’t agree less with a contemporary critic who claimed that just as the story got going, the music lost its way!

Another complaint, equally predictable, blamed Saint-Saëns for being that accursed being in an opera house, a ‘symphonist’. Yes, his orchestral writing goes well beyond um-cha-chas, but here it never obscures the soloists, weaving leitmotifs with a marvellous artistry that adds another level to the music and the plot.

Frédéric Antoun is a bright, not exactly nuanced Sabatino and Jean Teitgen a warm and sympathetic Renzo, but the main prize goes to Véronique Gens for her utterly superb singing of the title role.

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Roger Nichols