UNDERRATED / Pick of the crop: The case for Saint-Saens

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The Independent Culture
Two things did for Camille Saint-Saens in critically correct minds. There was the childhood accident of overdosing on the Carnival of the Animals, coupled with schoolday memories of hopeful cellists having their miry way with The Swan. The other he has to be blamed for himself: I compose, he said, the way an apple tree produces apples. Most cultures would be happy with the image of natural fecundity, but not the Protestant work ethic. Anybody who had it so easy has to be suspect. It's Mozart and Salieri all over again.

We francophiles hear it differently. Cast your ear back to the five piano concertos, if you have ever chanced to run into them - No 2 most likely. The verve, the fluency and pace, the pleasure in orchestral colour, the wit of a neatly turned harmonic corner and the frank thrills of a thunderous build-up: it all comes up as fresh as ever.

Nor is this the plum in the pudding. The intriguing No 5 is often called 'The Egyptian' after its highly ornamental slow movement, but this well-meant but touristy interlude of exoticism intrudes upon a calm, spacious landscape, in which unexpected drama is swept away in a final rush of high comedy. With No 4, ingenuity and melodic warmth go hand in hand, as Saint-Saens puts his themes through a saga of transformations and new vistas worthy of - well, worthy of his own Third Symphony.

This, the much-maligned 'Organ Symphony', is the real test case. Lips can curl at the very mention, as though there were something improper about all that piled-up splendour. If you are among the ones who thrill to the sweeping breadth of its final accelerations, you might like to know that a close analytical study reveals carefully designed long-term rhythmic processes that have not been given their due. But you won't need the reassurance. The echo of the sounds will do nicely.

Samson et Dalila divides us, too. Cecil B DeMille epic manque, or an overblown oratorio that doesn't work on stage? It has its devotees, but tends not to be so close to the hearts of people that have gone exploring the French operatic repertoire.

Much better to turn to the older Saint-Saens, and listen to the woodwind players who know the secrets of his last years - glowing sonatas that distil the finest of a fine ear and a quick mind into music of ageless


Few composers knew their instruments so well. Go back afterwards to the Carnival and you listen with fresh understanding. That Swan: an elegantly turned phrase? You certainly don't need to remind the cellists.

(Photograph omitted)