Leonard Slatkin has always seemed a good conductor to me but in a kind of middle-of-the-road sort of way. His recorded performances that I've heard have never struck me as ever being bad, nor have they ever appeared to me overly conservative or excessively extravagant or far out. Slatkin generally gives people what they want, in the way Eugene Ormandy always did, and I mean that as a compliment. So it is with his new recording of Saint-Saens's "Organ Symphony," which should neither shock, rock, nor disappoint anyone.
French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) once said of himself that he was "like a tree producing leaves," he was apparently so prolific and it all came so naturally to him. By the time the Philharmonic Society commissioned him to write his Symphony No. 3, the so-called "Organ Symphony," audiences already recognized him as the greatest living French composer of his day. We know him now chiefly for his opera Samson et Dalila, the orchestral Carnival of the Animals, the Second Piano Concerto, the little Dance macabre (which we hear on this disc in a version for solo organ), and, of course, the Third Symphony.
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 second-movement Adagio and the later part of the Finale. With Slatkin the first movement has a good sweep to it, the conductor maintaining a healthy ebb and flow to the tempo. Then, there's a good, smooth transition into the Poco adagio, which for me is a good test of any reading of the Third Symphony. The organ should wash over the listener in deep, gentle waves. Here, the Adagio doesn't really roll over our ears because the lowest notes don't have much strength to them. The music itself, though, does feel sweetly lyrical, and the organist, Vincent Warnier, offers a fine, if somewhat distant solo; plus, he has the advantage of playing on the historic Trocadero organ, now housed in Lyon, an instrument Saint-Saens would have known well.
By the time the fireworks begin in the final part of the piece, the players need to be well up to the challenge. Yet when they do erupt here, they don't quite ignite the way I've heard them at their best. Slatkin seems to hold back to a greater degree than some other conductors, rather than letting the music burst forth in all its glory. As a result, the performance comes off as a little more routine than the very best on record and never really quite stands out among the pack.
It is a shame, actually, that one has to make comparisons, but I suppose it's inevitable. The several benchmarks that do stand out for me are still the performances by Louis Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI or Klavier), Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (RCA or remastered on a JVC XRCD), and Jean Martinon and the Orchestre National de l'ORTF (EMI or Brilliant Classics), all performances providing an extra spark, an additional note of exhilaration missing from Maestro Slatkin's version.
Cypres et Lauriers is the other coupling, a tune I couldn't remember hearing before, the booklet note describing it as a "poignant lament." Originally written by Saint-Saens for solo organ, he left the additional orchestration up to the performer's imagination. I most enjoyed the organ's part in the proceedings and its dialogue with the orchestra in its grand, military-inflected finale.
Producers Vincent Villetard and Etienne Pipard and engineers Yves Baudry and Christian Lahondes recorded the music at the Auditorium de Lyon, France in November 2013 and February 2014. There is a very wide dynamic range on the disc, which is always a welcome quality because it helps emulate the actual concert-hall experience. However, it can also cause some listeners to complain about having to turn the volume up or down as they try to enjoy the music, not understanding that they need to find a compromise position for the gain setting. Other than that, the sound appears moderately distanced; slightly soft in the midrange; a little bright, raspy, and hard in the lower treble; a tad distant in the mid-to-upper treble; pleasantly warm in the upper bass; and disappointingly lacking in the deepest bass. Whatever, the organ's mid and upper-bass response is splendid, and the instrument provides a delightful presence.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: