Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 in C minor (Organ); Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor

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COMPOSERS: Saint-Saens
LABELS: Actes Sud
WORKS: Symphony No. 3 in C minor (Organ); Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor
PERFORMER: Daniel Roth (organ), Jean-François Heisser (piano); Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
CATALOGUE NO: Actes Sud ASM 04

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Saint-Saëns on period instruments is an enticing prospect. The two headline instruments understandably grab the attention. The organ of Saint-Sulpice, one of Cavaillé-Coll’s supreme masterpieces, sounds utterly splendid in the Symphony, while an 1874 Erard piano tickles and tweaks the ears by turn in the Concerto.

Beyond these are many points of interest, not least the quintessentially French woodwind, while the darker hue of the gut strings is telling in the slow movements. It is frustrating, then, that the ‘bilingual texts’ only give artist biographies, with no mention of the music, the instruments or the issues arising from playing Saint-Saëns in a historically informed manner.

These works make an intelligent pairing, each essentially eliding a four-movement structure into two movements, and each also develops themes cyclically. Surely, though, the Concerto should be heard before the Symphony. Unlike most supposedly ‘live’ recordings, this appears to be the real thing, with a palpable frisson of music-making in the moment that more than compensates for sounds such as the score’s pages being flicked over or some odd thumps (foot stamps?) in the Concerto.

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Jean-François Heisser is generally full of charm and sparkle, if slightly earthbound at the start of the Concerto’s final Allegro. Les Siècles play with panache under François-Xavier Roth, and though both works take time to get going, the conclusions are suitably bracing. Christopher Dingle