Saint-Saëns

Our rating 
2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

COMPOSERS: Saint-Saens
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1 & 2; Phaéton
PERFORMER: Malmö Symphony Orchestra/ Marc Soustrot
CATALOGUE NO: 8.573138

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‘He knows everything, but lacks inexperience’. Nowhere is Berlioz’s wry judgement on the prodigious young Saint-Saëns more apposite than in the early symphonies. Written by the time he was 18, the official first was actually his second completed symphony, with several other abortive attempts already under his belt. Although echoes of Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Berlioz are readily apparent, the lightness of touch is pure Saint-Saëns.

The First Symphony’s airy nature and the young composer’s ear for instrumental colour are to the fore in this performance from the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Marc Soustrot, the second movement’s flute duet being especially finely poised, while the clarinet solo that opens the third is beautifully controlled. Here, and in the more radical Symphony No. 2, the essence of the music is conveyed cleanly and captured in generally clear, atmospheric sound.

And yet, music that should have such joie de vivre and youthful high spirits remains stubbornly anonymous in these performances. It is all perfectly pleasant, but what should be hair-raising climaxes remain curiously unmoving and matter of fact.

It seems odd at first to place the later symphonic poem Phaéton as the final work on the disc as its ending is so subdued. However, what should be the exuberant end to the Second Symphony is scarcely more stirring. There is some lovely playing, especially in the slow movements, but too little sense of direction, or ebb and flow of tempo overall to make these performances come alive, making this a disappointing first instalment of a projected complete cycle.

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Christopher Dingle