Here's one that sees a lot of action: The Saint-Saens "Organ Symphony" again. It seems as though we see a new recording of it every month, and so far none of the newcomers have challenged my old favorites: Fremaux with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI or Klavier), Charles Munch with the Boston Symphony (RCA or JVC), and Jean Martinon with the Orchestre National de l'ORTF (EMI or Brilliant Classics). Still, it's always good to hear what different conductors do with it, and certainly the Malmo Symphony under its principal conductor, Marc Soustrout, give it a good workout.
As you recall, the Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 "Organ" by French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) is a colorful, sometimes bombastic, and thoroughly enjoyable piece of music. Although audiences recognize the piece by its nickname, the "Organ Symphony," the organ really only has a part in the second-movement Adagio and the later half of the Finale. Saint-Saëns 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.
Here, Carl Adam Landstrom takes the organ part and for this recording plays a Hoffrichter console with, as the booklet note explains, "the 'Hauptwerk' virtual pipeorgan software by Milandigitalaudio and a sample set produced by Sonusparadisi based on the complete sampling of the Cavaille-Coll organ of the Saint-Etienne Abbaye in Caen (France). That famous instrument was built in 1885, the same year Saint-Saens wrote his Symphony No. 3." It seems a pity the recording didn't use a real pipe organ for the occasion, but at least we get a feeling for the sound of an instrument that Saint-Saens himself probably heard playing his music.
Maestro Soustrot takes a relatively relaxed approach to much of the first movement, his time for it clocking in slower than any of the conductors I had on hand: Fremaux, Munch, Martinon, Stern, and Simon. Nevertheless, Soustrot maintains a rather flexible rubato, so his contrasts in tempo help to keep our attention.
The second-movement also goes by at a rather slow pace, even for a Poco adagio (a little slow). Nor does the organ flow over us like a huge but gentle wave as it should; it's more of small, gentle current. Nevertheless, there's nothing wrong with the sweetly mild effect Soustrot creates in this movement, and it is wonderfully serene, just as Saint-Saens must have intended.
The couplings on the disc are the Symphony in A major, which Saint-Saens wrote while in his teens, and the symphonic poem Le rouet d'Omphale ("The Spinning Wheel of Omphale"), which he wrote in 1871. The little Symphony in A is not in the same league as its big brother, a bit more old fashioned in its classical feeling and design. Yet even in his youth we can see Saint-Saens wearing his emotions on his sleeve. Soustrot makes it sound like a typical early Romantic piece of music, with huge crescendos and light lyricism in a classical form. The tone poem, on the other hand, is all picturesqueness, mood, and atmosphere, which Soustrot captures nicely.
Producer, engineer, and editor Sean Lewis made the recording at Malmo Concert Hall, Malmo, Sweden in August 2013. The sound appears very big and open, with reasonably good depth to the image, a modest room resonance, and a round, warm midrange response, which tend to make listening smooth and easy. There is a slight forwardness to the upper strings, not much, and maybe a slight constriction in the dynamics. For the most part, though, the orchestral sound is fairly natural. Although the console organ is not really as deep, rich, or taut as I might have liked, I doubt that many listeners would be able to tell it from a full, regulation pipe organ.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: