The music of Camille Saint-Saëns seems to have undergone something of a revival, with several cycles and series of unknown works underway as of the late 2010s and early 2020s. The one by conductor Jun Märkl, which so far has involved several different orchestras, shows great promise on this release with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, well recorded in its hometown concert hall. The bulk of the program is given over to a ballet sequence from the opera Ascanio (1890), which is rarely heard. The opera tells the story of sculptor Benvenuto Cellini and takes place partly at Fontainebleau Palace, where a dance segment unfolds in an outdoor courtyard. For these scenes, Saint-Saëns devised a series of sparkling little moments of dance in which he tried to replicate the sound of Rameau's music, appropriate to the period. The results do show the distance between hearing something exotic and being able to replicate it, even for Saint-Saëns, who would soon make an early edition of Rameau's works, but this doesn't matter at all. The scene unfolds in a series of gemlike melodies of tremendous charm. They require a sensitive conductor to capture the grace in its small turns of phrase, and Märkl delivers so well that the listener's mind may well conjure dancers cascading across the stage. The program is filled out by dance interludes from other operas that are not quite as entrancing; the Ouverture d'un opéra-comique inachevé by the 19-year-old Saint-Saëns, surely not heard anywhere for decades, is the most interesting of them. There is also a pair of alternative versions of the Ascanio pieces that will commend the album to serious Saint-Saëns fans, but anyone will enjoy this.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Ascanio - Ballet|
Act III. 8. Ensemble de Phœbus, Diane, Erigone, Nicœa et Bacchus avec les Muses, les Nymphes et les Bacchantes