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.
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: