THE "Symphonie Fantastique" produced by Berlioz in 1830 was actually the first important French symphony, a work quite as remarkable for its originality as for its dimensions, and owing very little to any of Berlioz's predecessors, either in his country or elsewhere.
There have been relatively few major French symphonies since Berlioz's time. The Symphony in D minor by the transplanted Belgian Ce'sar Franck and the one in C minor (with organ) by Saint-Sae ns are credited with initiating the modern French symphonic tradition; aside from those two well-known examples and the charming Symphony in C by the 17-year-old Bizet (which lay unknown for some 80 years!), there are the very beautiful Symphony in B-flat by Ernest Chausson and an interesting if less fascinating one in C major by Paul Dukas, the composer of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." In this century the Third Symphony of Albert Roussel has also attained respectable circulation.
There is yet another large-scale, extremely beautiful French symphony that no one seems to know, the Symphony No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 57, by Vincent d'Indy, which has just turned up in a new recording on an EMI Pathe' import, performed by the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse under Michel Plasson (2C 069-73100). In view of the scarcity of such works from French composers, it seems extraordinary that this one could have been so thoroughly overlooked everywhere; it is a stranger to concert halls in France as well as here, and this is its first recording since Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra made its sole predecessor on 78s in 1942, for RCA Victor.
D'Indy's earlier symphony bears a title rather than a number; it is called "Symphony on a French Mountain Air" and is regarded as more of a concerto than a symphony because of the important part for solo piano. The broader-scaled, four-movement Second Symphony, composed in 1902-03, contains a theme or two heard in the earlier work, but it is in the conventional mold of a symphony--four movements instead of three, with its material more extensively developed, and twice as long as the symphony with piano. The themes are sinuous and expressive, the scoring lush, brilliant and voluptuous, the overall impression one of unlimited fantasy and originality, within a specifically symphonic framework.
And yet, as already noted, no one knows this work. The San Francisco performances that preceded the recording sessions in 1942 must have been the first anywhere in at least 20 years, and the only one I've been able to document since then was given by Claude Monteux in New York in 1975 in observance of his late father's centenary. Plasson's may well represent the only presentation since then, and his recording is to be welcomed as an overdue correction of a major omission in our catalogues; it is only a pity the welcome can't be more enthusiastic, but the work requires more than Plasson's forces are able to give it.
D'Indy did not inhibit himself in the demands he made on the performers of his symphony. It is a revel for a virtuoso orchestra, and not a piece to be undertaken by lesser ensembles. One must wonder at Pathe''s assigning so important a project (and, for that matter, the Faure' orchestral works and the Gounod symphonies) to this group instead of, say, the Orchestre de Paris with a more imaginative conductor (Serge Baudo, perhaps, or Barenboim).
The new disc gives us a sketchy idea of what the d'Indy Second can be in a full realization, as anyone familiar with the old Monteux recording can testify. That recording was transferred to LP more than 30 years ago, but the sound was wretched (RCA was pushing its 45 system then, and didn't seem to care what sort of sound it put out on LP) and the disc was not kept in the catalogue very long. Perhaps a better-sounding reissue could be produced now, but RCA has shown little interest in this idea, despite repeated entreaties from vociferous enthusiasts, and no company had shown any interest in a new recording of the work till Pathe' got around to doing it in Toulouse. So, the new disc is a unique opportunity to get to know--or, rather, to get some idea of--this marvelous work. It is certainly worth a try; but let's hope we shall yet have a fully satisfactory account of the d'Indy Second on records, as well as a live performance or two from one of our own major orchestras.