Saint-Saens: Violin Concerto No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso; Jota Aragonese; Symphony No. 3 "Organ." Alexandre da Costa, violin; Marzio Conti, Oviedo Filarmonia. Warner Classics 0825646281442.

As you may know, Alexandre Da Costa is a Canadian concert violinist and winner of the 2012 Juno Award, an honor given by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to Canadian musical artists and bands to acknowledge their artistic and technical achievements. Or you may know him for his many fine recordings, including one I reviewed a while back of Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole. In a booklet note for the Lalo disc, Da Costa said that "a conductor once told me, 'If you play fast and you accelerate, it just shows fear. If you play slower and hold your tempo, it shows strength.'" That seems to be his musical philosophy here in Saint-Saens as well, the violinist holding back enough in reserve to spring tensions and create excitement all the more.

On the present disc, Maestro Marzio Conti and the Oviedo Filarmonia accompany Da Costa on two violin-and-orchestra pieces--the Violin Concerto No. 3 and the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso--and then the conductor and orchestra take things on their own with two orchestral pieces--the Jota Aragonese and the Symphony No. 3 "Organ."

So, we begin with the Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61, by French composer, conductor, and pianist Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). Saint-Saens dedicated the piece to the virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate, who played it at the work's premiere in 1880. Saint-Saens reminds us from the outset of the concerto that he wanted Sarasate to play it by opening with an extended passage for violin. Da Costa's performing philosophy pays off as the bravura portions of the score stand out all the more for his keeping other parts in reserve. Because the music is quite melodious and Da Costa is a sensitive performer, he is able to keep us suitably entertained throughout the piece.

The second-movement Andantino is one of Saint-Saens's most memorable and haunting creations, and Da Costa does it proud, if at the expense of being perhaps a shade too literal. There is, after all, more than a touch of impressionism in the composer's music, and that seems to elude Da Costa a little. But it's a quibble, and most listeners will probably find the performance just fine.

The third-movement finds Da Costa at his virtuosic best, with a good variety of reservation and outburst, and Saint-Saens's abundance of happy tunes easily carrying the day.

Next, we get the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A minor, Op. 28, for violin and orchestra, which Saint-Saens wrote in 1863, again for Sarasate. It's one of the composer's most-popular pieces, so recorded competition here is intense. Da Costa puts a good deal of Spanish flair into the Capriccioso, and even given the competition in this well-loved piece, Da Costa's recording should be one to consider. His command and execution are rock solid. After that we hear the little Jota Aragonese, Op. 64, for orchestra, written in 1880. In both pieces the Spanish orchestra appear to have this music in their soul.

To close the program, we get a real barnburner: Saint-Saens's Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, the so-called "Organ" symphony, which the composer completed in 1886. Saint-Saƫns said of the work, "I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." Oddly, though, he would live for another thirty-five years and write over 150 more pieces of music, but No. 3 would be his last full-scale symphonic work. Anyway, as you're aware, No. 3 isn't really an organ symphony at all but simply a symphony that happens to use an organ predominately in two of its four movements.

As much as I liked the performance of the Third Violin Concerto and Da Costa's part in it, I liked the Organ Symphony even more. Maestro Conti provides plenty of energy and excitement in the piece, yet he also offers a well-nuanced Adagio in the middle. He judges the tempos appropriately, too, never rushing, never lagging, and building to terrific climaxes. When the organ enters in the second and final movements, Conti ensures we know and appreciate it, pacing the music to showcase its presence.

Acacia Classics, under exclusive licence to Warner Classics, recorded the music at Principe Felipe Auditorium, Oviedo, Spain in 2014. In the concerto, the engineers miked the violin fairly close up and left of center, so it tends to dominate not only the music but the sound. In fact, the sound appears so skewed to one side that I had to stop a few minutes in and wonder if my playback system or my hearing had gone faulty. A quick check of several other recordings, however, revealed that all was right and proper with both my system and my hearing. So, be prepared for some left-side dominance here (or twist your balance control a bit to the right). Anyway, the violin sound is quite clear, as we might expect from such an arrangement, with a realistic tone and timbre. The orchestra is hardly noticeable behind the violinist most of the time, but it can be reasonably dynamic, too.

Interestingly, when the music turns to the purely orchestral with the final two items on the program, the balance evens out left and right. So maybe the left-side favoritism in the violin numbers was intentional in order to further emphasis the instrument. Whatever, when the orchestra is on its own, it sounds quite impressive, with plenty of fullness, range, clarity, and impact, and even a modest degree of depth. Moreover, in the symphony the organ sounds part and parcel of the proceedings rather than appearing in another room as it does in some recordings. In addition, it has decent low-frequency power, although not as deep as on, say, the Fremaux EMI/Klavier or Munch RCA/JVC discs.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa