What did we do during the Saint-Saëns year?

The composer Camille Saint-Saëns, who died on December 16, 1921, fought all his life for the construction and recognition of French music. His work is so abundant that most discophiles concentrate on a few works. Is the record portrait more interesting after this centenary year of his death?

When Camille Saint-Saëns was born in 1835, Berlioz was 31 years old and had just composed Harold and Italy. Several of his masterpieces, Romeo and Juliet, the Requiem, The Trojans and the Damnation of Faust, still to come.

When Saint-Saëns died, Claude Debussy had been buried for three years and Ravel wrote Daphnis and Chloe, The waltz, My mother Goose, finally almost all of his works except the Bolero, piano concertos, Tzigane, the Sonata for violin and piano and The child and the spells.

Between these two worlds, Saint-Saëns worked tirelessly for a simple idea: that French music exists and asserts itself in concert halls and at the opera.

Symphonist at 15

Paris acted as a magnet. For the brilliant musicians of Bohemia, Who led Rameau to review his art of orchestration ; for Haydn, who wrote a series of famous symphonies there; for Mozart, who even condescended to compose for the flute, this instrument which he hated among all (the Concerto for flute and harp of Mozart is what is most Parisian and more poles apart from its nature); Beethoven hoped for a job there and orchestrated his 3e and his 5e Symphony according to French tastes.

But Paris was welcoming to the point of forgetting itself. At the beginning of the XIXe century, it was Rossini against Beethoven. To the Italians the opera, to the Germans the other forms: symphonies, concertos, sonatas, quartets. Berlioz might be agitated, he was alone in his corner. Without Camille Saint-Saëns, perhaps France would have remained, like England (if it had not been, in the end, Elgar), a country of musical reception, with little identity of its own.

However, in his early days, Saint-Saëns was above all a suspicious musician. It was found too close to the Liszt-Wagner sphere. How could it be otherwise for a 15 year old teenager composing his first symphony (the one in the, revealed by Jean Martinon in 1974), his expertise being nourished by scores of German masters devoured at the Conservatory where he had been admitted two years earlier?

From a young age and in his twenties, Saint-Saëns tackled bastions: symphonies, chamber music and piano concertos, especially since he was also a virtuoso pianist.

His aesthetic objectives make him a sort of French Brahms, since he aims “for purity of style and perfection of form”. Ironically, this gifted giant was twice refused the famous Prix de Rome: in 1852, because he was considered too young, and in 1864, because he was too “old” and no longer needed it. .

The militant

At the age of 35, at the same time as the advent of the Third Republic in France (1870), Saint-Saëns entered a militant phase of promoting French music. For him, this is to promote the dissemination by concert societies in France of works written by contemporary French composers, while these societies still favor the Germanic repertoire. The front gathered around Saint-Saëns his colleagues César Franck, Gabriel Fauré, Théodore Dubois and Jules Massenet. The National Music Society led by Ernest Chausson in the 1880s and 1890s will welcome Debussy and Ravel as members.

After having invested the genres colonized by German musicians, Saint-Saëns will tackle opera. But the doors will not be wide open to him. His first opera, The silver stamp (1864), comes up against the demands of the director of the Opera, in particular that of blackmailing his wife. At the time of creating the work, the Maison is bankrupt. His emblematic work, Samson and Delilah (1877), will be recognized in Germany and everywhere before imposing itself in Paris (1892). Saint-Saëns will compose a dozen operas.

Among the milestones of her career, the year 1886 is particularly important, since she sees the creation of the 3e Symphony and you Carnival of animals. Saint-Saëns, who crossed the stream of Orientalism (Algerian Suite, Africa, The Princess yellow, Persian melodies), will play the pioneers at the beginning of the XXe century. From the phonograph first, by recording from June 26, 1904 for Columbia, then by being the first great composer of film music, in 1908, for The assassination of the Duke of Guise by Charles Le Bargy and André Calmettes.

To the disc

The centenary of the death of Saint-Saëns had repercussions on the recording world well before 2021, and very fortunately for that matter, because the projects in question would have been aborted because of the pandemic.

The impact most visible to the general public has been the upheaval of the piano concerto discography by two pianists at the same time: Alexandre Kantorow at BIS and Louis Lortie at Chandos. We place Louis Lortie a tiny tick above Kantorow, for his even more insolent virtuoso intoxication.

The more fundamental, but more discreet, construction was that of the Palazzetto Bru Zane, because it was done over five years, with various supports and publishers around the widening of the knowledge of vocal music. There was an album at Alpha des Melodies with orchestra with Yann Beuron and Tassis Christoyannis, directed by Markus Poschner. This double album followed closely an album of melodies at Aparté by Tassis Christoyannis and Jeff Cohen.

But above all, the Palazzetto has revived four operas by Saint Saëns on its own label. To begin with, The Barbarians (1901), under the direction of Laurent Campellone. Then, more recently, with Véronique Gens in the title role, Proserpine (1887), which Saint Saëns saw as his “most advanced theatrical work in the Wagnerian system”.

The silver stamp, directed by François-Xavier Roth, was then a capital resurrection. Saint-Saëns’ first opera, composed in 1864, anticipates, in a certain sense, Tales d’Hoffmann from Offenbach. The composer revised this opera ten times until 1914. Latest publication: the exotic Yellow princess in a recording from February 2021 perfectly coupled with the Persian melodies.

After the good surprises of the discography of piano concertos, the year 2021 brought us a new reference of the five symphonies (with the Symphony in A and the Symphony “The city of Rome”, revealed in 1974), by Jean-Jacques Kantorow, Alexandre’s father, in 2 separate CDs at Bis.

In the chamber music chapter, the 2e Trio by the Sitkovetsky Trio at Bis (+ Ravel) is clearly needed. Neither the versions of quartets (Sarastro Quartet) nor those of violin concertos (Cho-Herzog) are convincing. On the other hand, an interpretation by Daniel Müller Schott of the Concerto for cello nThe 1 is to be gleaned from a CD ” Four Visions of France »At Orfeo.

The big release is the Warner anthology ” Camille Saint-Saëns Edition “. This is all that Warner has been able to glean from the EMI, Erato, Teldec, Virgin catalogs … The model is that of the previous Berlioz, Debussy or Ravel boxes, with the added value that makes the brand of Warner boxes: historical CDs. There are eight here, including a complete CD devoted to the engravings and rolls of Saint-Saëns interprète. There are also the concertos for pianode Jeanne-Marie Darré, the Samson and Delilah by Louis Fourestier in 1946, the 3e Symphony by Duruflé and Bour recorded by André Charlin and legendary artists such as Cortot, Navarra, Thibaut, Munch, Fournet and Cluytens.

For the above, in 26 CD, the unparalleled anthology includes the symphonies of Martinon, the concertos of Collard-Previn (piano) and Hoelscher-Dervaux (violin), the Samson and Delilah by George Prêtre with Jon Vickers, organ work with Daniel Roth, transcriptions, the widest choice of chamber music, etc.

And what is mainly lacking (lesser-known melodies and operas) in the Warner box set was edited by Bru Zane, whose mission is not completed and who will not stop there, as the music of this talkative composer is rewarding.

Selected publications

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