Saint-Saëns composed five Symphonies, two of which are unnumbered. Of these the one in A opens captivatingly, so expressive, before turning dramatic, not a portent of things to come, for this is a light and frothy work, somewhat Schubertian, with an eloquent slow movement, a gracious Scherzo, and a gossamer (Mendelssohnian) Finale. By contrast, the big ‘Urbs Roma’ Symphony, forty-five minutes, has ambition scrawled all through it, and is confidently delivered by its creator, spaciously conceived, and with a fiery Scherzo and an expansive, rather operatic, slow movement.
Those Symphonies numbered 1-3 include the E-flat No.1 (Opus 2) with its pensive introduction to a striding/lyrical/majestic Allegro, then a Scherzo that is also a charming march, followed by a dusky slow movement and, attacca, a pomp-filled Finale. No.2 (A-minor, Opus 55) is an intense affair – there aren’t many first movements that chuck in a fugue after two minutes, although the music is sure-footed in its direction, with a quite lovely slow movement, a dynamic Scherzo, and a scurrying Finale, a musical soufflé if with a peppery edge.
Yet, for all their many attractions, none of these Symphonies quite make masterpiece status – and anyway Cristian Măcelaru, for all his sympathy, can make heavy weather of them at times. He does though conduct a well-prepared and consistently well-judged account of the two-movement/four-section C-minor No.3 (Opus 78), a twenty-four-carat ingenious masterwork, the one that is “avec orgue”, with Olivier Latry manning the named instrument. The recording throughout this set is bright and vivid, also a little fierce; and, as no claim is made for dubbing the organ from a separate location, I assume the Auditorium de Radio France (Paris) has an in-situ instrument, and while Latry is luxury casting, his contribution can be on the domineering side (aka too bloody loud) in sections II & IV (the organ’s only appearances), even getting in the way of the important timpani solo at the very end, which is a real shame in the context of an impressive performance. My first guide to this Symphony was Ansermet; he remains a trusty companion.
Măcelaru’s recordings are on Warner Classics 0190296533433 (3 CDs). Warner has also issued a Saint-Saëns Edition, thirty-four CDs (generous if not complete regarding Saint-Saens’s catalogue) that includes fascinating historical material, and with the Symphonies conducted by Jean Martinon: https://www.warnerclassics.com/release/camille-saint-saens-edition.