Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 "Organ" (CD review)

Also Poulenc: Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani; Barber:  Toccata Festiva. Olivier Latry, organ; Christoph Eschenbach, Philadelphia Orchestra. Ondine SACD ODE 1094-5.

I believe it is a law that any orchestra that gets a new organ must christian it by playing Saint-Saens's "Organ" Symphony. Such is the case with the Philadelphia's new Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, which the booklet note says is "the largest concert hall organ in the United States. Built by Dobson Pipe Organ Builders, Ltd. of Lake City, Iowa, it has 110 stops and 6,938 pipes ranging from the size of a drinking straw to two feet square by 32 feet in length."

Certainly, all 6,938 pipes are on prominent display here, with Philadelphia's Eschenbach excelling in the two opening numbers, Barber's Toccata Festiva and Poulenc's Concerto for Organ. Both pieces are extremely well played and generate a good deal of spirit. It is in the more-familiar Saint-Saens that we find only a middling performance. Things start out well enough with a relaxed opening movement and then a deliciously serene Adagio. But when the music starts to heat up in the second half, Eschenbach sometimes substitutes speed for excitement, and by the time of the finale, his conducting takes on a somewhat foursquare, oddly mechanical feeling. Not that any of the reading is bad, mind you; it's just a little different, and neither as exhilerating nor as smooth as my two favorite interpreters of this work, Fremaux on EMI and Munch on RCA/JVC.

Ondine recorded the organ's inaugural performance live in May of 2006, but you'd hardly know it was live until the unfortunate eruption of applause at the end. There is an excellent sense of space and depth to the sound, with a dynamic range so wide that if you are tempted to turn the volume up during the "Organ" Symphony's quiet opening chapters, you'll get knocked out of your seat as the piece moves on. The bass is also deep and satisfying, something necessary for the piece to work, but, to be fair, it is no deeper or more comforting than the bass on the Fremaux disc.

Incidentally, at the very bottom of the back of the jewel box and slipcover, you'll see the designation "SACD."  I have no idea if the disc is recorded in more than two channels because nowhere does the booklet say, and I have an SACD player hooked up only to a two-channel system. But it is a hybrid disc, playable on SACD or regular CD machines, and I did notice a very slightly, very marginally wider response from the SACD layer than from the CD layer.


1 comment:

  1. Yes, it is a multichannel disc, and the surround mix is exceptionally well-done. I agree with you, however, about the applause; as far as I'm concerned, I have no problems with, figuratively-speaking, inviting an orchestra into my listening room, but am not as thrilled about letting a thousand-strong boisterous audience tag come along with them!


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa