Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Étienne Marcel (1879) – Act 3 ballet
Henry VIII (1883) – Prélude and excerpts from Acts 2, 3 and 4
Parysatis (1902) – Airs de ballet
Henry VIII (1883) – Act 2: Fête populaire, ballet-divertissement
Samson et Dalila (1877) – excerpts from Acts 1 and 3
Residentie Orkest The Hague/Jun Märkl
rec. 2022, Concertzaal, Amare, The Hague
NAXOS 8.574463 
If asked to associate Camille Saint-Saëns with dancing, the first things that will come to most people’s minds will probably be the bacchanale from his best-known opera Samson et Dalila or else The dying swan, three or four minutes of choreography by Mikhail Fokine set to Le cygne from Le carnaval des animaux.
Saint-Saëns wrote much more music for dancers than that, however, even if much of it was not in the form of full-length ballets but instead to be found in episodes set within his operas. Thus, a couple of years ago I reviewed a Naxos disc in which Jun Märkl led the Malmö Symphony Orchestra in the substantial Act 3 divertissement from Ascanio (1890). With this new release, the same conductor – this time conducting the oddly-unpunctuated Residentie Orkest The Hague – brings us a selection of dances and ballet music from four more of Saint-Saëns’s operas that were premiered over a 25-year period: Samson et Dalila (1877), Étienne Marcel (1879), Henry VIII (1883) and Parysatis (1902).
Like many late 19th century composers, when it came to opera Saint-Saëns preferred his settings to be historical and, even better, exotic. The first works featured on this new disc are both set in the late medieval / early modern period. Étienne Marcel relates – with plenty of dramatic licence – the true tale of an 14th century merchant of that name, a political opponent of King John II of France who was eventually murdered for his pains. Henry VIII, meanwhile, offers a notably unhistorical take on the English king’s busy love life – though it’s been suggested that the composer’s obvious sympathy with the king’s rejected first wife might easily have justified re-naming the opera Catherine of Aragon. The remaining two operas are both set much further back in time. Samson et Dalila takes its inspiration, just as you’d expect, from the familiar Biblical tale of the ultimate bad hair day. The plot of Parysatis, on the other hand, transports us back to 5th century BC Persia, and relates the story of the sadistic queen consort of that name. A veritable virago, she was wont to while away her spare time by flaying the skin off her enemies – or else tying them up and leaving them in the forest, plastered with honey, to be devoured alive by wild animals and assorted creepy-crawlies. Compared to that delightful lady, the clippers-wielding Dalila hardly registers at all on the scale of wanton cruelty.
In terms of timing, more than half of this disc’s commendably substantial total duration is given over to excerpts from Henry VIII, for which, it seems, Saint-Saëns did some considerable background research into 16th century English music. Jun Märkl first gives us a selection of various orchestral highlights. A stately, dignified prélude features a trumpet melody that would sound entirely in place in – yet another – modern TV series about the Tudors, though the following tracks, of music derived from Acts 2, 3 and 4, generally eschew any attempt to convince us that we are in the 16th – rather than the 19th – century. A substantial marche du synode from Act 3 is probably the most successful of those excerpts, steadily and impressively building in grandeur – booklet writer Dominic Wells rightly describes its theme as “wonderfully noble” – even if its tempo here suggests that the doddery old clerics are managing, at best, a somewhat cautious promenade. The remaining three tracks are all less than three minutes in length, so that, while pleasant enough to listen to and no doubt effective as part of the overall score, none of them, on first hearing, makes that much of a real impression. Subsequent Henry VIII tracks on the disc do, however, present us with something rather more substantial in the form of a ballet-divertissement, the grand opéra’s longest uninterrupted dance sequence. Here Saint-Saëns utilises a mixture of genuine folk tunes from the British Isles with musical pastiche to insert English, Scottish and Irish elements into a fête populaire. He even includes an appropriately exotic dance for a gypsy girl – though it’s worth pointing out that, on this occasion, his historical research let him down, for Romany people had been expelled from England after the passage of the 1530 Egyptians Act. On the other hand, perhaps Saint-Saëns reckoned that libidinous Henry might have been prepared to make an exception for a dancer who was particularly pretty…
Most of the musical excerpts from Étienne Marcel once again suffer from being somewhat brief, with four of the six tracks clocking in at under three minutes in length. While, no doubt, effective when accompanying some appropriate on-stage action, when heard blind, as here on disc, they struggle somewhat to make an impact. Unlike in Henry VIII, on this occasion Saint-Saëns keeps pretty much to a late 19th century musical vocabulary, so that, heard in the abstract, his score might be just as appropriate to virtually any setting – though the absence of anything sounding remotely “regal” certainly suggests that the action occurs in a setting some way removed from a royal court. Étienne Marcel has, by the way, yet another of those exotic episodes that late 19th century audiences seemed to enjoy so much – not, this time, a gypsy dance but a lively Entrée des Bohémiens et Bohémiennes.
Given the nature of their subject matter, it is unsurprising that the dance episodes from both Parysatis and Samson et Dalila deliver their own exoticism more consistently. Most of them suffer, nevertheless, from the fact that they are rather brief. Of the four Parysatis and two Samson tracks, four are less than three minutes in length and a fifth comes in at under four minutes. As a result, when listening to them on disc – taken out of musical context and without the support of on-stage action – it is not always easy to derive anything much in the way of an overall impression. Only the well-known bacchanale from Samson et Dalila, the piece on this disc that exhibits the most successful combination of memorable melody, orchestral colour and rhythmic bite, is allowed the time (7:08) to establish itself as an earworm and it is easy to understand how it has achieved its enduring status as a classical “pop”.
When it comes to Parysatis, it is a shame that the performance here cannot replicate that of the 1902 premiere which featured 450 orchestral players, including two wind bands, 20 harps and 17 hunting horns, as well as a choir of 250 singers and 60 dancers. Instead we understandably, if somewhat disappointingly, get to hear the concert version of the airs de ballet sequence. After a brief 34 seconds introduction that will have you looking at your CD player’s display for confirmation that that really was all there was to it, we hear three brief dances that employ both rhythm and effective orchestration to good effect but remain, all the same, somewhat enervated in comparison with the more robust and vivid episodes found in Samson et Dalila. Putting to one side, for the moment, her penchant for sylvan bloodletting, you’d almost imagine that Parysatis presided over the sort of prim and proper court of which even Queen Victoria might have approved.
That absence of a musical killer punch is one that recurs all too often in these scores. The fact that Saint-Saëns was working on stories full of drama and incident and peopled by larger-than-life characters might, you’d imagine, have inspired him to create some equally vivid musical depictions. In practice, however, the results are somewhat patchy and the opportunities offered by the colourful scenarios aren’t always exploited to their full extent. Perhaps late Victorian morality, hypocritical though it was in practice, prevented Saint-Saëns from indulging his innate sensuality to the full except when he could utilise an “acceptable” biblical tale to depict – ostensibly negatively, of course! – the eroticism and violence that actually put customers’ bottoms on theatre seats?
Speculation aside, we can say with more certainty that Jun Märkl delivers very good accounts of this mainly less-than-familiar music and, in so doing, is well supported by his Dutch orchestra and by the Naxos engineering team. Collectors of 19th century ballet music and admirers of Saint-Saëns’s music will no doubt want to add this disc to their collections. To be frank, however, these musical excerpts, rather like the operas from which they originate, are essentially products of their own particular time and place and haven’t necessarily travelled well. I suspect, consequently, that most buyers of this disc will regard it primarily as a useful reference source rather than one to be played all that often for enjoyment.
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