Saint-Saëns is among the most paradoxical of composers. A classicist and self-styled eclectic, he nevertheless drew on the musical language of the Romantic era in which he lived, but eccentrically insisted that personal emotion should ideally play no part in composition, a curious stance that his own work predictably more than once contradicts. Gabriel Fauré once described him as “the most complete musician we have ever possessed,” though others, notably Debussy, disparaged him as conservative and had doubts about his worth. After his death, aged 86, in 1921, his reputation fluctuated wildly, and much of his colossal output remains in limbo. Maxim Emelyanychev and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s concert of his music, however, was a reminder of just how wonderful he can be.
Throughout, Emelyanychev shed fresh light on much that is familiar. Most interpreters think of the Organ Symphony (No 3) as being about decibels and immensity, where Emelyanychev views it in terms of tautness and clarity. This is not to say that the ending didn’t raise the roof (James McVinnie was the excellent organist), but the lean sound of period instruments confers transparency on music that can often seem over-plush. And what was so remarkable here was the level of detail, with every note and shift in texture hitting home, from the whirring strings of the first movement’s allegro to the complex brass writing in the ceremonial finale. Emelyanychev’s way with the symphony’s structural logic, keenly exposing the cut and thrust of its musical argument, was immaculate too.
Detail and clarity were characteristic of the evening as a whole, though they occasionally came at the price of dramatic weight, and Danse Macabre seemed short on malign wit and menace, despite terrific violin solos from Matthew Truscott and some deliciously creepy woodwind slithers. Phaéton, in contrast, was exceptionally done, the off-kilter rhythms exactingly precise, the gathering intimations of catastrophe superbly plotted and conveyed. Steven Isserlis, meanwhile, was the lyrical, expressive soloist in a wonderfully understated performance of the First Cello Concerto, the classical and Romantic elements (Mozartian thematic material, Lisztian cyclic structure) held in perfect balance. His encore was The Swan from Carnival of the Animals with Emelyanychev at the piano, dedicated to the memory of Jacqueline du Pré, whose 78th birthday would have fallen on the day of the concert – an extraordinarily moving performance where time, very briefly, seemed to stand still.