The works on this disc are all early, dating from the first half of the composing life of Saint-Saëns – that is, with the one exception of the Marche du couronnement which the composer wrote for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902.
In Spartacus, the composer depicts Alphonse Pagès’s tragedy on the revolt headed by the ill-fated gladiator in 73 BC by use of bold, chromatic notes, followed by a military allegro which integrates them. After a tender theme, the bold notes return, now with a downward turn at the end, probably evoking Spartacus’s defeat, and the concert overture ends with a march that recalls the tender theme.
Equally dramatic is Saint-Saëns’s symphonic poem Phaëton. In ancient Greek myths, Phaëton, the son of Helios, is reluctantly given permission to drive his father’s sun chariot. As Phaëton fails to control the chariot, and carries the sun too close to the earth, Zeus intervenes and brings the unfortunate ride – and Phaëton himself – to an abrupt end by means of a thunderbolt. Saint-Saëns’s writing for large-scale orchestra (including contra-bassoon, tuba, two harps, and three timpanists) brings with it a pure, raw energy. The intense state of panic is signalled by a menacing low note on the trombone and further heightened through subsequent imitative entries that crowd in on one another. After Zeus’s massive thunderbolt, the music subsides into a feeling of loss and regret. Saint-Saëns’s other three symphonic poems are also on this disc – Le Rouet d’Omphale, Danse macabre, and La Jeunesse d’Hercule – as well as the ‘Danse bacchanale’ from Samson et Dalila and the ‘Marche militaire française’ from Suite algérienne.
The works are performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and its Conductor Laureate, Neeme Järvi, who in the course of his conducting career has amassed a distinguished discography of more than 440 recordings, well over 150 of them for Chandos Records. Järvi is celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday this year, and to mark the anniversary we will release a two-disc set of highlights from his extensive Chandos discography in July.