Celebrating a Halloween Classic and Its Enigmatic Composer
Today’s Halloween month installment revisits an iconic piece from the creepy classical repertoire: French early Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. It’s been recorded to death (ouch, sorry), and strangely, it doesn’t seem to be represented in concert here in New York this month. But there’s a Utah Symphony recording worth hearing, if 19th century phantasmagoria is your thing – and if this album ever makes it to the web. For the moment, here’s a 1951 New York Philharmonic performance with maestro Dmitri Mitropoulos.
Conductor Thierry Fischer leads the Salt Lake City ensemble through a colorful, careening, deliciously inspired take. Madeline Adkins’ solo violin is jagged, almost haphazard, the simmer underneath is mutedly evil and the group are obviously having a great time with the gleeful grimness of this quasi-tarantella.
The rest of the record holds up robustly. The composer’s Symphony No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 55 opens with a series of spot-on, momentary solos from oboe, violin, bassoon and clarinet, introducing a slashing chromatic theme. The riffs are short, sharp, Mozartean, the orchestra pulsing tightly underneath. Saint-Saens was a prickly guy and didn’t do himself any favors for the sake of posterity, but this isn’t shalllow music, and the orchestra completely get that. It’s a clinic in classical composition.
The concise, contrapuntal phrasing of the second movement is more warmly crepuscular and early 19th century, closer to, say, Beethoven’s Sixth. Fischer lets the dogs out to leap and waltz around the wry, momentary solo passages of the third, then the orchestra go racing, lickety-split through the jaunty concentric circles of the finale. Still, conceptually, wouldn’t it have been a whole lot more interesting if Saint-Saens had rolled with the menace inherent in the opening movement? Maybe eschewing that was a commercial move, figuring that there’s only so much macabre an audience can take.
The opening of the other symphony here, No. 2 in F, “Urbs Roma” has been ripped off for plenty of pop songs over the years. It’s surprising that the tumbling pageantry of the second movement and the troubled Mitteleuroepean gothic of the third haven’t also been plundered. The album’s liner notes witheringly quote Claude Debussy as saying that Saint-Saens – who’d trashed the debut of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn – once showed promise of becoming a great composer. Whatever you think of his music – his endless volleys of orchestral counterpoint, his grandiose, Lisztian piano concertos, his irresistible Organ Symphony and perhaps shockingly poignant solo organ works – you can’t deny his gift for pure entertainment. Once again, Fischer gets that, and so does this orchestra.