Conductor Thierry Fischer has turned his deep love for the music of Saint-Saëns into a ravishing 3-CD cycle of orchestral pieces with the Utah Symphony, and the final installment is WCRB’s CD of the Week.
Ask Thierry Fischer why the inventive and warm-hearted music of Camille Saint-Saëns is still underrated, and he’ll say that if he knew, he’d hold press conferences everywhere to undo the mystery. Saint-Saëns wrote a whole lot more than the Organ Symphony and The Carnival of the Animals, and while those pieces have rightfully inspired people around the world, Fischer yearns to present the bigger picture. For Fischer, when the early works are given the loving attention they deserve, their French spirit is freed – they speak to him, he says, “like poetry.”
Fischer has brought his Utah Symphony under the composer’s spell, letting them in on details of Saint-Saëns’s life while developing the indescribably supple warmth that French music is designed to emanate. To say that his three-disc cycle of orchestral pieces has been a labor of love would probably be an understatement. The last has just been released on the Hyperion label, and it takes no time to hear the sheer beauty that has come from the devoted analysis and complete immersion that Fischer has shared with his musicians.
The Carnival of the Animals is here, along with a symphony that Saint-Saëns wrote at the age of 15, and the CD opens with the Symphony No. 1 in E-flat, written as an eighteen-year-old. When the low strings begin the piece with two slurred, descending notes, it’s as if they are speaking. It’s instant transportation into the poetic world that Fischer so believes in. Even when Saint-Saëns floats in timeless spaces, there is incredible life in the orchestra’s playing. Just listen to the opening two minutes (track 1), where Fischer has perfectly calibrated the rise from those opening notes to a vivacious, sunlit strength. It's perfectly calibrated and totally natural.
The Carnival is fantastic, too, played with the same loving precision. Fischer totally gets the Frenchness of its humor. Roger Nichols, in his excellent liner notes, points out that Saint-Saëns allowed “The Swan” to be published, but “resolutely set his face against the other thirteen pieces being played during his lifetime … he was nervous about how such a work would be received in Germany, where he appeared regularly as a pianist. The intentions of the Société nationale de musique were not only to promote instrumental music but at all costs to appear professional and serious, so jokes were out.” Pianists Jason Hardink and Kimi Kawashima do a nice job throughout, not overdoing the joke when playing the part of the strange breed of animals known as pianists (track 15).
For more on Thierry Fischer and his love for Saint-Saëns, check out this wonderful interview from Limelight Magazine.