Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 and Carnival of the Animals conducted by Antonio Pappano

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COMPOSERS: Camille Saint-Saëns
LABELS: Warner Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Saint-Saëns
WORKS: Symphony No. 3*; Carnival of the Animals†
PERFORMER: *Daniele Rossi (organ); Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano †(piano); Martha Argericho (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 9029575555

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There’s a wealth of expression to be drawn out of every note in the slow opening of Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony – at least as shaped by Sir Antonio Pappano, live in concert with his non-operatic orchestra in Rome.

Non-operatic? This most popular and dramatic of the French composer’s symphonies here receives an intensity of treatment that would not disgrace a Leoncavallo denouement. There’s something driven, almost demoniac about the first movement, progressing in great dark surges, and the Poco Adagio unfurls as a tragic aria in all but name. Pappano brings us a drama in music that undoubtedly compels and raises the hairs at every turn. The only trouble is that it leaves one wondering whether Saint-Saëns really is being ideally served. Rather like Balzac, Saint-Saëns is a detailed observer and conveyer of drama, yet one often suspects that the heart he appears to wear on his sleeve is not actually his own. Here, the music’s poise and lightness of touch, the vivacious imagination and rigorous construction, don’t always come through the extremity of expression; and crucially, when the finale gets underway, it can risk becoming excessive – maybe depending on your mood while listening. Do hear it – I may be being churlish. 

No such problem tethers down the Carnival of the Animals, in which Pappano takes to the piano alongside Martha Argerich, together with soloists from the orchestra. It’s pure fun, and even if it is delivered with unusual heat, the high energy and glittering pianism prove irresistible. 

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Jessica Duchen