How many pieces by Saint-Saëns could you name, let alone hum? Once you get past the Organ Symphony, Danse macabre and Carnival of the Animals, with maybe a concerto or two, you may struggle. Well maybe this is the year to fix that. 2021 is the centenary of his death so it’s the perfect excuse to explore some obscure corners of his output, and what better company could you imagine than the Orchestre de Paris?

Julien Masmondet, Eva Zavaro and Victor Julien-Laferrière
© Claire Gaby

You might argue that an hour and a half of Saint-Saëns is somewhat gilding the lily, but only once (more of which below) did I feel that this concert suffered from longueurs. Instead it reminded me that Saint-Saëns is a brilliant melodist and a gifted musical architect, and it left me hungry to find out more.

Streamed from the darkened Philharmonie de Paris, this concert wisely combined the familiar with the fresh. How many of us have ever encountered Saint-Saëns’ opera La Princesse jaune, I wonder? No, me neither, but it has a cracking overture, played with marvellous colour here. The slow introduction contains a waft of the orient that’s redolent of Samson and Delilah, and there’s something delectable about hearing a French cor anglais playing the solos. However, the faster section almost has a touch of Offenbach to it, and it’s a treat to hear.

Marie-Ange Nguci and the Orchestre de Paris
© Claire Gaby

The programmers also wisely chose the composer’s two most popular concertos. Marie-Ange Nguci didn’t look as though she was enjoying playing the Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor all that much, judging from the tortured look that was permanently etched into her face. However, it might have helped her playing of the grave, lyrical cadenza that introduced the piece, full of seriousness that matched the weight of the orchestral sound, soloist and orchestra meeting to form a very satisfying whole. She lightened up a little for the tripping central movement, and the finale sounded meaty and exciting. Throughout the concert, conductor Julien Masmondet wasn’t much more than a safe pair of hands, but he shaped for this concerto a dark, treacly sound that I really liked and which made the music come to life. Demonstrating that he isn’t a one-trick pony, however, the sound was a lot lighter in the First Cello Concerto, balancing a lithe, grainy sound from cellist Victor Julien-Laferrière who managed a light-hearted sense of drama throughout.

Julien Masmondet and Eva Zavaro
© Claire Gaby

At the centre of the concert sat the ever-popular Danse macabre, though would you believe this is only the second time the orchestra has played it?! They certainly enjoyed being let loose on it, and the unison strings sounded sensational in their statement of the main theme. I’m not sure I liked their decision to bring in Eva Zavaro as a separate violin soloist, though. This solo should really be played by the leader: you lose the sense of an orchestral achievement when an extra is brought in. It’s not a concerto and, anyway, the violin part isn’t that difficult.

But violin and cello soloists did give them an excuse to perform La Muse et le poète as their closing piece. This work, totally new to me, has a light sound but a super-Romantic texture and a melody so direct and communicative that it reminds me of a film score by Ennio Morricone. It’s much too long, and it had a distinct sense of running out of musical ideas by the time it got to the end of its nearly 20 minutes, but it was played beautifully and it made me wonder what other undiscovered gems might be lurking out there? Nothing else for it: this concert has sent me off to raid a streaming service for some more of Camille Saint-Saëns' crackers.

This performance was reviewed from the Philharmonie de Paris' video stream