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

Also, Symphony in A major; Le rouet d'Omphale. Carl Adam Landstrom, organ; Marc Soustrot, Malmo Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.573139.

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-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.

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.

Marc Soustrot
Then, with the Scherzo, Soustrot finally lets his hair down, still just a fraction slower than the aforementioned conductors but in the ballpark with a rousing conclusion. It comes off in both dramatic and ambitious fashion, with the organ pounding out a strong contribution.

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:

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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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa