Thierry Fischer / Paul Jacobs / Utah Symphony Orchestra

Saint-Saëns: Trois Tableaux Symphoniques d'après La Foi; Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila; Symphony No. 3 'Organ'

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In the glory days of conductor Maurice Abravanel, the Utah Symphony was a fixture in any American collection of symphonic music, and even in many beyond that country's shores. The group hasn't been heard much on recordings in the 21st century, so it's a delight to find that under Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer, it hasn't lost a step. Fischer and the orchestra have launched a Saint-Saëns cycle, which is all to the good, and it includes obscure orchestral works along with the numbered symphonies, which is even better. The main attraction here, the Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op 78 ("Organ"), gets a clean, shiny performance with an electric organ at Salt Lake City's Abravanel Hall, in the hands of Paul Jacobs, actually providing the atmospheric wash Saint-Saëns had in mind more effectively than a bigger instrument might have. The highlight is the little-heard Trois tableaux symphoniques d'après La foi, Op. 130, a three-movement suite made by the composer from incidental music he wrote for a play. Incidental music was the immediate predecessor to film music, and these pieces have a film-score flavor, with quiet, harp-led passages up against music that shows the Utah Symphony brasses to be absolutely second to none. Sample the lofty "Andantino" second movement, a delightful example of Saint-Saëns as melodist. There are also intriguing treatments of the Egyptian-influenced material Saint-Saëns experimented with at various points in his career. One might have wished for an explanation in the accompanying album materials as to what was being depicted here in the original score, as well as for a more bacchanalian performance of the "Bacchanale" from Samson et Dalila, but overall, this is a major release from an exciting American orchestra. Hyperion producer Tim Handley does fine work in a live performance at Abravanel Hall, surely unfamiliar for the label's engineers. Highly recommended.

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