For the past 13 years, Swiss-born maestro Thierry Fischer has been a man on a mission. As Music Director of the Utah Symphony, a post he announced this week that he will relinquish in August 2022, he has revitalised Maurice Abravanel’s Salt Lake City-based orchestra, lifted its international profile, and embarked on a number of ambitious recording projects. It took him a little while to develop what he refers to as a “flexible sound” – one that saw the orchestra successfully deliver recordings of big works like Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and a soon-to-be-released Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky – but come last season he felt they were ready for a project especially dear to his heart. “I thought, the orchestra is ready to go for French music, but not necessarily Boléro or La Mer,” he explains over the phone from Europe. “These pieces everybody hears all the time.”

Thierry Fischer conducts Utah Symphony. Photo © Kathleen Sykes/Utah Symphony

Fischer’s idea was to tackle a relative rarity and record a symphony cycle by the prolific but still oddly underrated Camille Saint-Saëns. “I have a weak spot for Saint-Saëns,” he admits. “I think he developed French Romanticism a lot, and even if some people consider his early pieces not so interesting or naive, I believe they are very strong.”

Luckily for Fischer, a long-term relationship with Hyperion, for whom he has recorded Widor, Honegger, d’Indy and Françaix over the years, paid off and they quickly came onboard. In fact, the British label has championed Saint-Saëns over the years, recording many of his his songs, the violin concertos, piano concertos (award-winning versions with Stephen Hough), chamber music and solo works for piano and organ. And yet, the French composer has had it rough over the centuries, the victim of a great deal of musical snobbery. Composer, pianist, world’s greatest organist (according to Liszt), conductor, expert on ancient music, playwright, poet, philosopher, caricaturist, mathematician, botanist, astronomer and archaeologist, it seemed there was nothing that Saint-Saëns couldn’t do. Yet even Berlioz – who was an admirer – looked askance at him with his famous bon mot: “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience.”

So, what’s the problem? “Honestly, if I had an answer, I would give it to you – and I will make press conferences everywhere,” Fischer laughs. “I think the only reason I can give you, and it’s a very personal one, is that I think to play these big, early pieces like Urbs Roma and the First Symphony, you need to be in love with them.”

By Urbs Roma (City of Rome) Fischer is including not just Saint-Saëns’ three numbered symphonies, the First (1853), the Second (1859) and the ridiculously popular Third (or Organ Symphony of 1886), but the unnumbered Symphony in A from 1850 and the Symphony in F from 1856, whose cryptic subtitle “Urbs Roma” may be a reflection on the composer’s failed second attempt to win the Prix de Rome two year’s previously.

Thierry Fischer. Photo © Marco Borggreve

“[With the early works], you need to find these long moments, when you have the impression that nothing special is happening or that it’s too simple, or he’s still too green and hasn’t found his language yet, or the form is illogical,” Fischer explains. “Really, when I started looking at them, they spoke to me like poetry. All these slow introductions and these half sounds with the violins in the Second Symphony. I always feel like it’s a big opera without words with him. You have to have the right feeling for the tempo, not to make it too thick, not to make it too fast. Just think of his personality and everything he did, his education, his health problems, why he had to go to North Africa all the time. If you put things in context, plus you have a French culture, plus a French spirit, then you develop a French orchestral texture.”

In fact, it didn’t take Fischer long to convince his players of the merits of these works and Utah took the plunge, programming the five symphonies plus a selection of other orchestral pieces all in the one season. “You could see smiles on stage, and I had also big eyes and big ears,” he says. “We wanted to do more, and we worked on these pieces like we were discovering something. We couldn’t believe none of us had ever performed them before. We were all diving in, everybody trying to know things about Saint-Saëns. They were asking me a lot of questions, because I’ve read all the books and letters he wrote, all his story and the conflicts with his parents, just to be a little bit more in the mood.”

The Second Symphony gets the occasional outing in the concert hall, thanks perhaps to the influence of Mendelssohn on the last movement especially, but the First is hardly ever heard. “It’s incredible,” Fischer exclaims. “It has the fire of somebody who is not quite ready but quite determined, so it’s an emotion by itself. It’s simple, and I was often thinking of Gabriel Fauré. It spoke to me like reading new poetry.”

Fischer is also convinced that the Urbs Roma symphony is the most personal of them all – “it’s anguished,” is the term he uses. “And it’s about people! So it has this capacity of wandering at every bar. He’s like somebody who looks at people without understanding them but pretending that he does. So, it creates this ambiguity, which is also particular to French music – an ambiguousness of where to go and whether to stay there.”

Thierry Fischer conducts Utah Symphony. Photo © Kathleen Sykes/Utah Symphony

The three-disc cycle also features a handful of popular favourites like Carnival of the Animals (on the yet to be released third disc) and Danse Macabre (on disc two, out now), but it also contains a major rarity. In 1908, Prince Albert I of Monaco commissioned Saint-Saëns to compose incidental music to Eugène Brieux’s play La Foi (Faith). A peculiar piece, set in Egypt at the time of the Middle Kingdom, it contemplates, among other things, the power of religion and its appropriate limits. Nevertheless, Saint-Saëns was a huge Egyptophile and threw himself into the project with great abandon and a slew of authentic themes.

“Simon Perry – he’s Hyperion’s CEO – told me we should record something unknown,” explains Fischer. “We listened to La Foi a few times at home, not together, and we both felt that this could be a masterpiece. I arrived at the first orchestra rehearsal as excited as if I was going to conduct for the first time in my life. I read the story, of course, and I could see all these guards on their horses, but we immediately found the right tempo, the right connections and right balance. I had to work a lot with the brass not to overdo it, because this is not Romantic French, this is more descriptive French. Now that it is on CD [see the Limelight review] , I have promised myself to program it regularly on the concert platform.”

A quick look at the long list of Saint-Saëns’ compositions reveals a vast potential treasure trove. Alongside the 13 operas, there are works in all genres – there’s even a film score! – many of which the average concertgoer would be highly unlikely ever to have heard of, let alone heard. The list of opus numbers stretches all the way up to 169, with at least as many works again having no opus number assigned. So are there any special gems that Fischer would advocate for?

“Yes,” he replies, hardly pausing for thought. “There is a piece called La Nuit, which I performed in the Netherlands and fell in complete adoration of the piece. It’s for soprano, female choir and a brass orchestra. Absolutely stunning. It’s what French composers can do sometimes, like Fauré when he composed the Cantique de Jean Racine. They are little treasures – once you hear them you cannot stop listening them. He also wrote an oratorio called Le Deluge, which is so dramatic! I laughed when you said that 80 percent of his music is not played, which is a scandal, but I’m sure he will have his time because the orchestra needs to go outside of Dvořák Nine and Beethoven Five. It’s our responsibility as music directors to program well and influence people to enjoy new pieces.”

With Saint-Saëns done and dusted, Fischer and his Utah forces have a Berlioz disc coming out on Hyperion as well as a disc featuring Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux Étoiles…, an imaginative but relatively rarely performed work, and one that takes its inspiration from Utah and in particular the spectacular vistas of Bryce Canyon and Zion Park.

As for Fischer, in September 2022 he will assume the title of the Utah Symphony’s Music Director Emeritus, in which capacity he hopes to continue their musical relationship. Who knows, there might even be a little more Saint-Saëns to be done.

Volume 2 of Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony’s Saint-Saëns Cycle is out now on Hyperion