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

Also, Guilmant: Marche sur; Vierne: Carillon de Westminster; Widor: Allegro vivace from the Sixth Organ Symphony. Philippe Belanger, organ; Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Orchestre Metropolitain.  ATMA Classique ACD2 2540.

The prolific composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) once said of himself that he was "like a tree producing leaves." At the time the Philharmonic Society commissioned him to write the Symphony No. 3, the so-called "Organ" Symphony, audiences already recognized him as the greatest living French composer. Today, we know him chiefly for his opera Samson et Dalila, the orchestral Carnival of the Animals, the Second Piano Concerto, the little Dance macabre, and, of course, the Third Symphony, among many other things. It's a commendable output.

The Symphony No. 3 is a colorful, at times bombastic, but thoroughly enjoyable piece of music, with the organ taking a commanding part in the Adagio and the second segment of the Finale. Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Montreal's Orchestre Metropolitain, and organist Philippe Belanger attack the music with gusto. But for me the test of any reading of the Third Symphony is the Adagio. The organ should wash over the listener in deep, gentle waves. The ATMA recording almost does just this thing, and certainly Belanger gives it his best shot.

By the time the fireworks begin in the final third of the piece, the players are well up to the challenge, and both the organ and the orchestra ring out authoritatively. It is perhaps a shame, actually, that one has to make comparisons, but it's inevitable. The two benchmarks that stand out for me are the performances by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (RCA) and by Louis Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI), both of which provide an extra spark, an additional note of exhilaration, missing from Nezet-Sequin and his forces.

ATMA's sound, recorded in 2005, is remarkably smooth, with adequate inner detailing; yet for so robust an organ recording the midrange and high end seem a bit too thin and warm, lacking the last degree of richness and sparkle. Nevertheless, there is a fine hall ambience here that will not displease most listeners.

Filling out the album are the three pieces for organ listed above, all of them sounding a touch billowy but well performed, with some really strong bass for those who enjoy their subwoofers.


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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