Phaéton Op.39 (1873)
Cello Concerto no.1 in A minor Op.33 (1873)
Danse macabre Op.40 (1874)
Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.78 ‘Organ’ (1885-6)
Steven Isserlis (cello, below), Matthew Truscott (violin), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Maxim Emelyanychev (above)
Royal Festival Hall, London
Thursday 26 January 2023
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Steven Isserlis picture (c) Satoshi Aoyagi
Top marks to the planning team of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, for scheduling a night of Saint-Saëns in January! They chose a rousing quartet of works as part of the orchestra’s Sounds For The End Of A Century series, in what may have been a first live encounter for the orchestra with the French composer’s music.
They were matched with a suitably dynamic conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev throwing heart and soul into the music as we explored numerous links between Saint-Saëns and Liszt. This was done through a pair of symphonic dramas, one to open each half, the Cello Concerto no.1 and the Symphony no.3, the ‘Organ‘, dedicated to Liszt himself.
The first drama told the story of Phaéton. Drawn from Greek mythology, it tells how the child of sun god Helios drives his chariot recklessly across the sky – from which he is felled by Jupiter’s lightning bolt. The action was thrillingly conveyed here, the vehicle veering wildly from the start in the quickfire violin lines. The warm second theme offered a little respite but all too quickly the thunderbolt arrived, delivered with maximum drama by three timpanists, Adrian Bending, Florie Fazio and Tom Hunter.
The second drama was Danse macabre, originally a song but now a seasoned favourite in its orchestral guise. The devilish solo violin role was taken up by orchestra leader Matthew Truscott with some relish, playing with vigour from his position just behind the woodwind. Emelyanychev’s pacing was ideal, and while the dance initially felt a little soft it transpired he had been saving the full fury of the orchestra for the final rendering of the theme, unleashed in a thoroughly satisfying blast.
Steven Isserlis joined the notably reduced orchestral forces for the Cello Concerto no.1, another popular piece full of melody and incident. Isserlis has championed the music of Saint-Saëns throughout his career, and this performance found him in his element, lovingly attending to the tender second theme of the first movement and the opulent Allegretto, while fully opening up to the virtuoso demands of the outer sections. Dialogue with the orchestra was brisk and full of smiles, while the structure of the concerto – a single movement in line with the piano concertos of Liszt – was expertly handled in league with Emelyanychev.
As a thoughtful encore Isserlis marked what would have been the 78th birthday of Jacqueline du Pré, choosing the most appropriate encore – The Swan from Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals. Accompanied by Emelyanychev on the orchestra piano, the cellist gave a serene yet searching account.
Finally we had the rare chance to hear the Organ Symphony in period instrument guise, with a blast from the Royal Festival Hall organ and James McVinnie. While the third is by some distance Saint-Saëns’ most popular symphony, it should be noted that a concert of either the fine Symphony no.2 or the work titled Urbs Roma would not go amiss before too long.
Here, however, was a piece written in dedication to Liszt at the surprising invitation from the Royal Philharmonic Society, and premiered at the long-demolished St James’s Hall near Piccadilly in London. It is easy to forget just how original a piece this is, with a large orchestra including not just organ but a piano (with two pianists), two harps and more. There is also an impressive resourcefulness on the part of the composer with his thematic material, which Emelyanychev took the chance to illustrate throughout.
The nervy first movement harked back to the motion of Phaéton’s chariot, albeit now riddled with anxiety, its syncopated nature leaving room for doubt. Consolation was on hand in the form of the substantial section marked Poco adagio, a noble utterance whose poise unexpectedly anticipates Elgar in style. The entrance of the organist here was expertly handled by McVinnie, whose familiarity with the Royal Festival Hall instrument enabled him to achieve an ideal balance with the orchestra. He did this through some wholly rewarding registration choices.
As a consequence the slow movement was deeply emotional, its quiet moments accentuated by Emelyanychev and the soft strings, played with little vibrato. The hurried Scherzo was a vivid contrast to this, and brilliantly played, before the doors were flung open for the famous finale.
McVinnie led with authority, securing a lovely, grainy sound from his instrument for the thunderous C major chord at the start. The two pianists, playing what seemed to be a modern instrument, caressed the upper reaches of the texture with delicate arpeggios. Emelyanychev steered clear of sentimentality in his interpretation, a move which actually heightened the impact of the piece and carried us to a thrilling conclusion.
A blast of C major to see January into the long grass was most welcome – what more could a concert goer want?!
You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment website.