L’Enfant et les sortilèges and Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3

The New York Philharmonic on Friday, October 6.

Sneering at melody is one of the classic postures of the music snob. To describe a composer as a “mere melodist” is to condemn his or her work as shallow crowd-pleasing: pretty tunes with nothing of substance underneath them. I usually dismiss that sort of criticism. It underestimates how difficult it is to write a truly memorably melody, and it often overlooks the other qualities of the music in question.

But in the case of Camille Saint-Saëns’ third symphony, well, I think it’s the sort of work that gives melody a bad name in critical circles. I enjoy much of the composer’s other music, but listening to the so-called Organ Symphony, I recall Claude Debussy’s great put-down: “I have a horror of sentimentality, and I cannot forget its name is Saint-Saëns.”

The symphony is pretty, certainly, and it has a few lovely moments, but Saint-Saëns doesn’t do much with the melodies beyond repeating them endlessly. At one point, he hints at imitation, staggering the entrances of the same tune, but nothing comes of that.

The orchestration might have had potential. Saint-Saëns includes an organ in the work (which is sometimes called the Organ Symphony) but makes no real use of it. Despite the fact that he himself was a virtuoso organist and composed many wonderful pieces for the instrument, he provides the organ in the third symphony with little more than sonorous whole notes. I find it very telling that Saint-Saëns chose to conduct the premiere of the work rather than perform the organ part.

The Philharmonic’s performance of Saint-Saëns’ symphony was very pretty (though the rapid repeating notes sounded out of sync in the first movement) but rarely anything more than that. In the end, the symphony was both very pretty and pretty dull.

Maurice Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges (loosely translated as The Bewitched Child), on the other hand, was anything but dull. I wasn’t previously familiar with the strange “lyric fantasy” about a badly behaved boy whose bedroom furniture and backyard animals scold him for his misdeeds, but the Philharmonic’s performance of the work was a trippy delight.

The Philharmonic gave a concert presentation rather than a staged performance, but even in formalwear, the vocalists acted their parts with zest. Susanne Mentzer, a trouser role specialist, was amusingly pouty as the naughty child. She has a round, warm tone, dancing lightly even on the lower notes. Soprano Patrizia Ciofi’s portrayal of a nightingale was heart-stoppingly airy and birdlike, and the duet between two cats, played by mezzo Isabel Leonard and baritone Ian Greenlaw, managed to be both howlingly funny and genuinely impressive. Ravel went to great lengths to notate the “meows” properly, and Leonard and Greenlaw threw themselves into the goofy song with verve.

My favorite sections, though, were the choral numbers, with the sumptuous harmonies brought warmly to life by the New York Choral Artists. It’s a shame Ravel didn’t write more choral music. The all-too-brief choral passages in L’Enfant et les sortilèges demonstrate his knack for writing for the human voice. True, the melodies didn’t stick in my head the way the repetitive tunes in Saint-Saëns’ symphony did, but they held my interest and captured my imagination. (It is hard to go wrong when you’re writing for a pair of vocally horny cats.)

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