Ernst Van Bek
Classique News (France)

Following the opera Hélène, the conductor Guillaume Tourniaire is continuing his exploration of Saint-Saëns’ operatic music for the Melba label. These extracts from his operas Ascanio, Etienne Marcel and Les Barbares are premiere recordings. It’s an audacious program and a beautiful artistic achievement. Presently there are two institutions (outside of France) who are working in an exemplary manner for the dissemination and re-evaluation of romantic French music: the Palazzetto Bru Zane Centre for romantic French music in Venice (the initiator and producer of no less than 3 thematic festivals each season dedicated to French romanticism) and in Australia the Melba label which perpetuates the memory of the legendary diva, Nellie Melba (creator of Saint-Saëns’ Hélène in 1904 in Monte Carlo), whose 150th anniversary is being celebrated in 2011.

After the world premiere recording of the opera Hélène (a particular favourite of the editorial team here at Classique News), here is the next instalment in a superb series revealing an unknown facet of the genius of Camille Saint-Saëns: his contribution to ballet.

There’s a surprising ‘Danse de la gipsy’ (Gypsy Dance) with a captivating oriental sensuality (in the style of Samson) which is excerpted from Henry VIII. And whatever the mood or the subject, there is the suave elegance of Saint-Saëns, prodigious with caressing melodies and evocative, opulent blends from the orchestral palette. Guillaume Tourniaire carefully shapes a characterful, often delectable creamy instrumental sound. There’s a more elegiac and tender mood in ‘La fête du houblon’ (The Hops Feast); nothing boastful nor boorish as the title of the second excerpt from Henry VIII (1883) might suggest.

Though he admired Wagner, Saint-Saën also knew how to distance himself from the German with his own rhythmic and harmonious “French” style. He didn’t, however, didn’t enjoy the same success as Massenet, his most fortunate rival in opera. Elegance would be Saint-Saën’s most essential trait, the composer remaining deaf to the ineluctable modernism of Debussy and to the Italian verismo composers at the dawn of the 20th century.

The suite from Ascanio (1890) – here recorded complete with its 12 tableaux in the manner of the opera ballets of the 18th century – remains resolutely neoclassical if not indeed neo-baroque or even Rameau-esque (Saint-Saëns edited numerous scores by Rameau). Even if the action in Ascanio unfolds at the court at Fontainebleau at the start of the 16th century, this lyrical work succeeds again through the use of carefully plied accents (in the woodwinds and strings) and baroque and renaissance rhythms (the ‘Apparition de Phoebus, influenced by Orchesographie by Thoinot Arbeau in 1588). The evocation of Cupid offers an alternative to the rich orchestration style of Delibes (Coppélia). In this drama where the Duchess d’Estampes is preferred by Amour and Psyche to the gods of mythology, Saint-Saëns delivers a series of irresistible dances, a beautiful example of the taste and elegance so admired by Reynaldo Hahn, amongst others.

Usually obsessed by “elevated” music, Saint-Saëns allowed himself to be seduced by the subject of Les Barbares (The Barbarians) (1900-1901), a spectacle created for the open air amphitheatre at Orange. An historical tragedy, the piece is based upon the book by Victorien Sardou and takes place at the start of the 1st century BC and, under the cover of the Gallo-Roman conflict, evokes pretty clearly the contemporary Franco-Prussian tensions. Humiliated in 1870, France had great difficulty getting back on its feet, particularly in cultural terms. Guillaume Tourniaire has chosen the superb Prologue (of more than 15 minutes!). After a grave and dark-hued section there is a solo violin song (Hymn to Venus), then Livia’s song (a trumpet solo). Thanks to the sacrifice of the vestal Floria the Gauls are saved from the Barbarians.

Building up from the strings, with accents in the woodwinds and brass, the brilliant liveliness of the harp, and overall a dramatic fire which brings out the narrative and the sumptuous orchestration – witness the temperature of the Farandole that concludes Les Barbares – Guillaume Tourniaire performs Saint-Saëns’ music (greeted with such indifference during his lifetime, especially in the Parisian musical scene) with conviction. The conductor is just as successful in putting over the “neo” archaisms (in particular the ‘Pavane’ from Etienne Marcel, premiered in Lyon in 1879) as well as in the purely modern waltzes, the individual character of which is ingeniously contrasted one from the other.

The commitment of the Australian label Melba is all the more meritorious for being so unjustifiably rare. These extracts from his operas Ascanio, Etienne Marcel and Les Barbares are premiere recordings. It’s an audacious program and a beautiful artistic achievement.