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

Also, Trois tableaux symphoniques d-apres La foi; Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila. Thierry Fischer, Utah Symphony. Hyperion CDA68201.

This disc looked pretty promising when it arrived for review. The "Organ" Symphony is always a crowd pleaser; in my experience Hyperion produces good-sounding recordings; and I had heard good things about Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer's previous work with Saint-Saens. So it was a little disappointing that I wasn't entirely knocked out by Hyperion's live sound or by Maestro Fischer's somewhat reserved reading of so flamboyant a score.

Let's get to the main subject first, the Symphony No. 3 in C-minor, Op. 78, written in 1886 by French composer, organist, pianist, and conductor Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). It's no doubt the most-popular thing Saint-Saens ever wrote and to this day remains one of the most popular pieces of classical music of any kind.

Saint-Saëns called the work "a symphony with organ," and remarked, "I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." Apparently he knew what he was talking about because even though he lived another thirty-five years, he never wrote another symphony, organ or otherwise.

The composer divides the work into two major parts, with two divisions in each part. It's an odd arrangement but essentially works out to a conventional four-movement symphony. The first movement has always seemed to me the least distinguished, the least characterful, but Maestro Fischer and the Utah Symphony do their best to make it seem as purposeful as possible. Nevertheless, it still comes off a bit mundane compared to the rest of the work. For his part, Fischer increases the tempo and dynamic contrasts as he goes along and builds a decent head of steam by the end of it.

Thierry Fischer
The second movement Adagio always reminds me of great, warm, soft waves flowing over and around one's body on a sunny, tropical beach. Here's where the organ (Paul Jacobs, organist) makes its first entry, coming in with what are usually huge, gentle, undulating washes of sound. Fischer makes it warm and gentle enough, to be sure, he's a most-sensitive conductor, but I didn't think the organ carried the weight it could have to make much of an impression. Plus, Fischer's relaxed pace may be too slow for a lot of listeners. It's one thing to be sensitive and another to be lax.

The two movements that comprise the finale should be fiery and exhilarating, if not a little bombastic, with the organ blazing the trail. Here, Fischer comes to life, yet without exaggerating the music. Those folks who think Saint-Saens overdid himself in the final passages may appreciate Fischer's calmer demeanor in taming and refining the score. Then, too, the organ finally makes its presence known (what with its going into hiding in the recording's second movement). That being said, I wasn't exactly thrilled or inspired by Fischer's performance as I have been by conductors like Louis Fremaux, Charles Munch, or Jean Martinon. Fischer is a little too overly refined, too sedate, too serious for my taste.

Accompanying the symphony are a couple of other items by Saint-Saens, and they actually precede the main course. They are Trois tableaux symphonique d'apres La foi ("Three symphonic scenes from The Faith") and the Bacchanale from the Samson et Dalila. The first of these, the "Scenes," the composer took from his incidental music to the play The Faith, although one should not take them as literally describing any specific action from the play. Whatever, I enjoyed these "Scenes" best of all on the program because Fischer's natural sensitivity seems perfectly suited to their content, and I also admired the exotic color Fischer effected in the Bacchanale.

Producer and engineer Tim Handley recorded the music live at Abravanel Hall, Salt Lake City, Utah in December 2017. The audience is either unusually silent or the engineer carefully removed all evidence of audience noise, including applause, so the sound doesn't suffer much from people's presence. There is, however, a degree of smooth roundness to the sound that may have something to do with noise reduction; I don't know. Audio levels are on the low side, perhaps to accommodate the wide dynamics. Still, the actual dynamic impact seems a tad muted except in the Bacchanale. Depth perception is good; detailing is fine without being harsh or steely; orchestral hall bloom is moderate at best; and bass, while slightly limited, is at least adequate. The whole thing, though, appears more than a bit soft and veiled, again maybe to reduce the effects of the audience's presence.


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

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa