As far as single-disc compendiums of Camille Saint-Saëns' shorter orchestral works go, this new release on the Chandos label buries the competition. Neeme Järvi may have been 74 when he made these recordings with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, but he conducts with the zest of a Gustavo Dudamel, setting a new standard for everything on this consummately programmed disc.
The album begins with the ever popular "Bacchanale" from the opera Samson et Dalila, a wild dance in which the Philistines celebrate their victory over the Hebrews. This performance in super audio sound must be one of the most exciting on record.
Saint-Saëns' quartet of symphonic poems follows, beginning with Le Rouet d'Omphale (Omphale's Spinning Wheel). The music sports a sinister, whirling theme that served as the signature tune for the old-time radio program The Shadow. And next we get Phaëton, which tells the story of the son of Greek god Helios, who loses control of his sun chariot, forcing Zeus to kill him with a thunderbolt — one of Saint-Saëns' wildest musical moments.
Another favorite is the eerie Danse macabre, a Gallic counterpart to Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. A screeching violin, ossiferous xylophone and Dies Irae-related themes make it easy to picture nocturnal spirits of the dead cavorting about in some spooky cemetery.
At almost twice the length, La Jeunesse d'Hercule (Youth of Hercules) is the most sophisticated of the four. This 14-minute symphonic study was inspired by the youthful heroic exploits of the Roman demigod Hercules. The music unfolds in four motifs, including a rising, gallant theme, a playful idea, a whistling figure and a dance-like episode. The piece ends in a thrilling fugue-initiated coda that recalls some of the themes.
Saint-Saëns' Suite algérienne is all but forgotten today except for its "March militaire française," a timeless warhorse. This performance of the march captures all the French piquancy of its opening and the majesty of the rousing finale.
The overture to the lighthearted opera La Princesse jaune (The Yellow Princess) is one of Saint-Saëns' most delightful creations, showing off a constant stream of catchy melodies and rhythms. A graceful opening anticipates the world of Ippolitov-Ivanov's Caucasian Sketches. But the tempo soon picks up as the music moves farther east with an episode consisting of three sprightly Japanese-sounding motifs. There's also what's probably meant to be the sound of a Buddhist temple bell as well as some wonderfully infectious modulations.
The disc closes with three pieces that will be discoveries for most listeners. Une nuit à Lisbonne (A Night in Lisbon) is, according to the composer, "a little barcarole." Then there's the prizewinning dramatic grand concert overture Spartacus and finally the Marche du couronnement, written for Edward VII's coronation in 1902.
Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his website Classical Lost and Found.