Symphony No. 1 in E flat; Carnival of the Animals; Symphony in A major
Utah Symphony/Thierry Fischer
Hyperion CDA68223 82:05 mins
This packed final instalment of Saint-Saëns from the Utah Symphony under Thierry Fischer frames Carnival of the Animals with two symphonies written when the composer was still a teenager. The zoological fantasy may be the draw, but the symphonies steal the show. There are few if any signs that the classically-proportioned Symphony in A major is the work of a 15-year-old. The spirits of Mendelssohn, Schubert and, of course, Beethoven can be felt in the lightness of the Scherzo, the shades of dark and light in the slow introductions, and the periodic concentration on a brief musical fragment. It’s a remarkable assuredness that is admirably engaging in this lithe performance, even if Saint-Saëns himself might have pressed harder on the accelerator at the end.
Much the same might be said for the composer’s official First Symphony, written three years later and for a larger range of orchestral colour. The occasional detail gets blurred in the cavernous Abravanel Hall, but Fischer still draws clean yet warm textures from his Utah players, with careful touches such as uncovered timpani mallets.
The Carnival is more problematic. The ‘Wild Asses’ and ‘Finale’ have great zest, and the Tortoises’ slow dance has poignant beauty, but the ‘Royal March’ is ponderous, and the elephant periodically resembles a woolly mammoth in this acoustic. It may be too much to expect a glass harmonica for the ‘Aquarium’, but the glockenspiel is especially hard-edged. Nevertheless, a welcome disc for the wonderful performances of the symphonies.