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

Also, Introduction and Rondo capriccioso; La muse et le poete. Jan Kraybill, organ; Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony. Reference Recordings RR-136.

We have come to expect only the best from Reference Recordings, especially those releases made by their chief engineer and company co-founder Keith Johnson. The present disc is no exception.

Now, as I've said before, any time a company records a major repertoire item, it faces stiff competition from dozens, sometimes hundreds, of alternative recordings. So, to entice a potential buyer, the record company has to offer either a performance of superior quality or sound that knocks your socks off. Preferably both. With RR's release of Saint-Saens's "Organ" Symphony, they almost succeed with the former and certainly accomplish the latter. It's another fine Reference Recordings issue.

French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) said of himself, "I produce music as an apple tree produces apples," by which I suppose he meant he was quite prolific and everything came naturally to him. By the time the Philharmonic Society commissioned him to write his Symphony No. 3 in 1886, audiences already recognized him as the greatest living French composer of his time. These days, we know him particularly for his opera Samson et Dalila, the tone poems in Carnival of the Animals, the First Cello Concerto, the Second Piano Concerto, the Third Violin Concerto, the little Dance macabre, and, of course, the Third Symphony.

The Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, is a colorful, sometimes bombastic, but thoroughly enjoyable piece of music. Although audiences recognize the piece by its nickname, the "Organ Symphony," the organ really has only a part in the second-movement Adagio and the later segment of the Finale. Saint-Saƫns called the work a symphony with organ, and said of it, "I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." It appears he knew what he was talking about (or he was too contrary to go back on his words) because even though he lived another thirty-five years, he never wrote another symphony, organ or otherwise.

Anyway, I have to say something up front about Maestro Stern's interpretation of the symphony: Although I like it, it lacks the sheer adrenaline rush of Charles Munch's performance with the Boston Symphony (RCA or JVC), the suave lyricism of Jean Martinon's rendering with the Orchestre National de l'ORTF (EMI or Brilliant Classics), and the overall thrilling and poetic moments of Louis Fremaux's account with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI or Klavier). That said, Stern holds his own pretty well.

Michael Stern
Under Stern, the symphony's opening movement is appropriately restless, its familiar theme reworked several times over in various guises and tempos. It leads smoothly into the Poco adagio, which sounds just as serene as Saint-Saens intended (the composer described it as "extremely peaceful and contemplative"). When the organ enters (Jan Kraybill performing on the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ), it should appear as a huge, warm, gentle wave rolling over us at the beach, and it does. It's a most-refreshing experience, because in some recordings the primary notes are so low the recording barely reproduces them. Here, we actually feel them.

In the final movements, Stern allows the music to expand from a relatively controlled opening to an explosive conclusion. By leaving the bulk of the fireworks to the end, Stern builds a cumulative effect, which may not be initially very impressive but leaves one with a satisfying feeling of exhilaration by the time it's over. Oh, and when that organ thunders in at the last, it does so with authority. If you live close to neighbors, keep it down.

The disc couplings for the symphony are Saint-Saens's fairly well known Introduction and Rondo capriccioso and the less well known La muse et le poete. Violinist Noah Geller in the Capriccioso and violinist Noah Geller and cellist Mark Gibbs in La muse play some lovely notes, and the orchestral accompaniment sounds flawless. Because Saint-Saens composed the Capriccioso for the virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate, you would figure on its being a vehicle for showing off the soloist's skills, and Mr. Geller is up to the challenge. In Le muse et le poete--a late work (1910) combining elements of a double concerto and tone poem--the violin takes the Muse's part and the cello voices the Poet. This was the first time I'd heard it, and it's beautiful. What a great revelation.

Producer and editor David Frost, executive producers J. Tamblyn Henderson and Marcia Gordon Martin, recordist Sean Royce Martin, and engineer Keith O. Johnson recorded the music at Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri in June 2013. "Professor" Johnson made the 24-bit recording using his patented HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital) encoding process.

The resultant sound is resplendent and ideally captures the grandeur of Saint-Saens's music. The orchestra displays wonderful dimensionality. We hear it laid out before us in four dimensions: side to side and front to back, with air around the instruments. There is also a great dynamic spread with plenty of punch (meaning it sounds like a real orchestra should sound), a modest distancing, good midrange transparency, and a mild hall resonance to set it all off in a most-natural manner. Most important for the symphony, the organ sounds deep, rich, solid, and clean. As usual with Reference Recordings, this is splendidly lifelike sound, with no artificial enhancement, close-up miking, or editing-console gimmicky.


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

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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