This is an expensive CD from Prospero - well over $20. It's certainly impressively packaged, in a thick, hard-back cardboard enclosure which includes a lavish 34-page booklet complete with glossy pictures and flattering commentary. If only the music-making and sound were as glamorous.
I read in the booklet that conductor Ivor Bolton is a Baroque/Classical specialist. And my first impression listening to this recording was that he's seriously out of his element in these richly orchestrated, highly dramatic symphonic poems by Saint-Saens. But reading further, I was shocked to learn he's also conducted a lot of opera. So I'm bewildered why this music, which should lend itself readily to someone with so much opera experience, seems to elude him. I hear none of the drama, dynamism, or passionate soaring lines one typically encounters with opera.
The Basel orchestra is fine - in an efficient, rather dispassionate way. Tempos are also fine, often with good momentum, but the orchestral playing is a bit cautious and lacks panache. Drama is minimized and even the climactic sections of the Bacchanale and Danse Macabre fail to generate much adrenaline or excitement, leaving the listener unmoved.
Which brings me to the recorded sound. The orchestra is set back in a slightly distant, over-reverberant acoustic which lacks something in sheer presence and impact. There is an empty hall tubbiness to it, which tends to muddy inner details and blunt sparkle. Worse, dynamics are curiously restrained - confined to a p - f range - and climaxes simply fail to expand into the acoustic. Orchestral colors too are a bit lackluster - the opposite of vivid and vibrant. These observations have me thinking that, given Bolton's credentials, the lack of dynamic range and musical involvement are likely more the fault of the recording engineer rather than the conductor.
Perplexed by it all, I tried listening to this CD again on a different day and have concluded the recording itself is indeed largely to blame for much of the blandness heard on this program. And it seems to affect some tracks more than others. For example, Phaeton is surely one of the better readings here, aided by a judicious boost of the brass (and a quick tempo), finally bringing some life to this orchestra. While Hercules and Omphale's Spinning Wheel, which feature a lot of soft playing, suffer the most from a lack of involvement. The two most familiar tracks, Bacchanale (from Samson & Delila) and Danse macabre are merely perfunctory readings, especially when compared to countless other recordings.
The production proudly proclaims these to be "World premiere recordings" based on new critical editions. Whatever. I heard absolutely nothing new, revelatory or remotely interesting in any of them.
Despite the extravagance of the production, this is a disappointment musically. And when you consider the total playing time is just 49 minutes, it's extremely poor value as well.