Saint-Saens: Organ Symphony (CD review)

Also, Carnival of the Animals. Daniele Rossi, organ; Martha Argerich, Antonio Pappano, pianos; Antonio Pappano, Orchestra dell-Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Warner Classics 0190295755553.

There's always room, I suppose, for another recording of an old warhorse, in this case the Saint-Saens Third Symphony, know popularly as the "Organ Symphony." Whether the newcomers measure up to old favorites, it's always good to hear what different conductors can do with a work, and, to be sure, Maestro Antonio Pappano, organist Daniele Rossi, and the Orchestra dell-Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia give it a good shot.

As you may know, French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) wrote the Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 "Organ" in 1886. Because it is a colorful, sometimes bombastic, and thoroughly pleasing piece of music, it has enjoyed enormous popularity over the years. 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." Apparently, he knew whereof he spoke (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.

The first movement of the symphony has always seemed to me the least distinguished, the least characterful, and I can't say that Pappano makes it any the more distinctive. Still, he injects as much life as possible into the affair, so there is no want of thrills.

The second movement Adagio always reminds of great, soft warm waves flowing over and around one's body on a sunny, tropical beach. The organ comes in with these huge, gentle washes of sound. Here, Pappano makes it warm and gentle enough but the organ doesn't carry the weight it should to make much of an impression.

The two movements that comprise the finale should be fiery and exhilarating, and it's here that Pappano carries the day. The Presto abounds with energy, and when the organ enters at the last, it may not be as deep or rich as it could be, but it is loud and it does generate a good deal of excitement.

Coupled with the symphony is Saint-Saens's humorous Carnival of the Animals suite, which he wrote the same year, 1886, as the Third Symphony. He scored it for two pianos, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute and piccolo, clarinet, glass harmonica, and xylophone, and here's where this recording shines. Both Pappano himself and Martha Argerich take the piano parts. While Pappano is a fine pianist, no doubt, Argerich is universally acclaimed as a great pianist, one of the finest pianists in the world. So it's a treat having her in on the festivities.

Antonio Pappano
Saint-Saens considered the work too light for him to publish, that if he did it would distract from his more serious compositions. He did, however, leave instructions that it might be published after his death, so the first public performance didn't occur until 1922. Today, of course, audiences have come to love the piece, and there are numerous recordings of it by just about everyone. Still, this one's got Argerich, and that counts for something.

Saint-Saens subtitled the work "A Zoological fantasy for 2 pianos & ensemble," and the soloists are splendid. Each of the fourteen little segments comes off beautifully, with plenty of life and sparkle. While they all shine, the "Aquarium" is particularly atmospheric, the "Fossils" are fun, and, of course, the famous "Swan" (cello solo by Gabriele Geminiani) is as lovely as ever.

The thing about this album is, though, no matter how many new recordings we keep getting of the Organ Symphony, so far none of them have challenged my own personal favorites: Louis Fremaux with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Warner Classics or Klavier), Charles Munch with the Boston Symphony (RCA or JVC), and Jean Martinon with the Orchestre National de l'ORTF (Brilliant Classics). And, I might add, the folks at Warner Classics already offer the same coupling as here--Third Symphony and Carnival of the Animals--with Fremaux at a bargain price. With the Fremaux disc having wonderful performances and excellent sound, it makes it hard for any newcomer to compete; indeed, if this new entry didn't involve Martha Argerich, it probably wouldn't be a contender at all.

Producers Giacomo De Caterini and Michael Seberich recorded the music live in April and November 2016 in the Sala Santa Cecilia (Organ Symphony) and Sala Petrassi, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome. Warner Classics mark the issue as "Santa Cecilia Live," so one must assume they recorded both works live; however, for reasons unknown, a loud outburst of applause accompanies the close of the Organ Symphony, while the Carnival of the Animals ends in dead silence. Maybe they didn't do the Carnival live? I don't know. But I preferred the silence.

Anyway, the sound in the Organ Symphony is a little close, as we might expect from a live recording, providing a reasonably quiet response, with a huge dynamic range and good impact. It also produces a touch of brightness, edge, and glare, however, and a small degree of fuzz. There seems little depth to the orchestra as well, which is unfortunate, so things are rather one-dimensional. Timpani are prominent in the symphony, which is good, but as I mentioned earlier the organ is not especially deep, just loud. In the Carnival, which the composer scored for around a dozen instruments, the sound is better--cleaner, warmer, smoother, more transparent, and, while still fairly close-up, not so obviously flat.

JJP

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


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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