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

Also, Danse macabre; The Carnival of the Animals; Allegro appassionato. Louis Fremaux, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. EMI Classics for Pleasure 0946 3 82233 2.

This is just a note in case you're counting the number of times record companies have released Louis Fremaux's recording of Saint-Saens’s "Organ" Symphony over the years.

EMI first released the recording in 1972 on their Columbia Studio 2 vinyl label, EMI's answer to Decca's Phase Four at the time. It was quite a spectacular LP in its day and recorded, as I remember, in four channels. But EMI never officially imported it to this country, and EMI's American Angel division never to my knowledge issued it over here. Instead, Klavier released it on LP in the U.S., Klavier being one of the country’s smaller record companies and specializing back then in taking up some of the slack left by the bigger outfits. Appealingly, the Klavier LP mastering was leaner sounding and in some ways more transparent than the original EMI. After that, in the late 70's, EMI issued a second LP of the work in their mid-priced Greensleeve series. This time the sound seemed even warmer and more bass dominant than before.

Then came the CD era in the early Eighties, and again it was Klavier who first issued a full-priced CD of the recording in America. And again the Klavier sonics were slightly more natural sounding than the subsequent, mid-priced EMI Studio CD that followed it in the U.S. After that, Klavier withdrew the recording from their catalogue. Meanwhile, EMI issued it several more times, the recording appearing in a bargain-priced, two-CD Seraphim set, on a mid-priced Eminence disc, and on the current Classics for Pleasure issue. In between time, a company called Royal Classics issued it (1994) coupled with a Dvorak Ninth Symphony conducted by Rudolf Kempe. Interestingly, the EMI English sound has remained consistent over the years--warm, mellow, bassy, and robust--just as Klavier's sound filled in a little more of the middle.

Why do I mention any of this at all? Because Fremaux's performance of the "Organ" Symphony is the only version I have ever felt was worthy of mentioning in the same breath as Charles Munch's famous 1959 RCA recording with the Boston Symphony (available on RCA or at extra cost on an XRCD audiophile remaster by JVC). The Fremaux performance deserves its multiple releases. The interpretation displays energy, zest, excitement, and grace aplenty, with a second-movement Adagio that flows over the listener in soft, warm waves.

My only minor concern at the moment is that if one wants the absolute best sound in the Fremaux recording, one has to find a used copy of the old Klavier (LP or CD), and that may be difficult without paying an arm and a leg for it. Maybe someday one of the audiophile houses--FIM or HDTT, perhaps--will remaster it, and we’ll have the best of all worlds. In the meantime, the Classics for Pleasure release contains not only the symphony, which is brief at well under half an hour, but good performances of the Danse macabre, The Carnival of the Animals, and the Allegro appassionato as well. It’s quite a bargain.


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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.

Mission Statement

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