Saint-Saens: Symphony No 3 “Organ Symphony” (SACD review)

Also, Poulenc: Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani; Wider: Symphony for Organ No. 5. Christopher Jacobson, organ; Kazuki Yamada, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Pentatone PTC 5186 638.

By John J. Puccio

If you went to the catalogue of classical recordings, I’m sure you’d find that the “Organ” Symphony of Saint-Saens ranks right up there in popularity with the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. It’s that well liked. So it’s inevitable that we get new recordings of it every year. This new one under review is an international affair: the music is, of course, French. The conductor, Kazuki Yamada, is Japanese. The organist, Christopher Jacobson, is American. And the ensemble, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, is the Swiss orchestra co-founded by Ernest Ansermet in 1918. Whether this array of global talent does any better a job of interpreting the music must be left to the individual listener, naturally, but I can tell you after having sat through most of the recordings currently available, the new one does a pretty good job with it.

The French composer, organist, pianist, and conductor Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) wrote his Symphony No. 3 in C-minor, “Organ,” Op. 78, in 1886. It is probably the most-popular thing he ever wrote and, as I say, remains one of the most popular pieces of classical music of any kind.

Saint-Saëns called the work “a symphony with organ,” and he 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 on for thirty-five more years, he never wrote another symphony, organ or otherwise.

The composer divided the work into two major parts, with two divisions in each part. It’s an odd arrangement, but it essentially works out to a conventional four-movement symphony. What’s more, although most people today know the work as the “Organ Symphony,” Saint-Saens himself labeled it Symphonie No. 3 "avec orgue" (with organ). In fact, the organ only plays a part in two of the four movements, the second and the last. But it makes enough of an impression for folks to remember it.

The first movement has always seemed to me the least distinguished, the least characterful, but Maestro Yamada and the orchestra do the best they can. They establish a sweet, leisurely tempo in this section, which, if anything, leads effectively into the second, slow movement.

The second movement Adagio always reminds me of soft, warm waves flowing over and around one’s body on a tropical beach somewhere. Here’s where the organ (Christopher jacobson, organist) makes its first entry, coming in with what should be huge, gentle, undulating washes of sound. Unfortunately, I didn’t really hear or feel those waves from the organ, which stays remarkably aloof from the proceedings. While it’s not unpleasant, it’s not what I expected, either. Actually, Saint-Saens labels this movement Poco Adagio, or a little bit slow. In other words, not quite as slow as a traditional Adagio. Yet Yamada and his team take it at a pace that seems almost drowsy compared to many other recordings.

The two movements that comprise the finale can be fiery and exhilarating, if not a little bombastic, with the organ blazing the trail. Here, Yamada maintains the unhurried atmosphere he set in the beginning, giving us a relaxed, almost tranquil close. Again, not what I expected and not at all unpleasant, but different. Some listeners will no doubt find the reading lyrically rewarding. However, I found it a far cry from the more electrifying performances by Louis Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Warner Classics/EMI), Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony (RCA/JVC), or the steady yet still heady version by Jean Martinon and the National Orchestra of France (EMI or Brilliant Classics), all of which remain my first-choice recommendations.

Coupled with the Symphony are two more organ works by French composers: Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani; and Charles-Maria Widor’s Toccata from his Symphony for Organ No. 5. The Poulenc work seems especially well suited to the understated style of Yamada and Jacobson, and it comes off with an appropriately energetic, yet spiritual and inspirational tone. Well done. As an encore, Jacobson gives the Widor Toccata a good, healthy flourish.

Producer Job Maarse and engineers Erdo Groot and Jean-Marie Geijsen recorded the music at Victory Hall, Geneva, Switzerland in August 2017. They made the recording for hybrid multichannel SACD, two-channel SACD, and two-channel CD playback. I listened in two-channel SACD.

The hall nicely complements the sound of the orchestra, giving it a degree of depth and resonance that some venues lack. The sonics are smooth and natural, not particularly transparent or “audiophile” but lifelike in their presentation. The SACD recording ensures that dynamics are there when needed, both in range and impact, although here, too, it isn’t quite in the audiophile class of clarity but more subtle. The organ makes a different impression on the ears in each of the three works on the disc. It’s restrained and a tad recessed in the Saint-Saens, more aggressive in the Poulenc, and finally comes into its own in the solo Widor piece. Of more important note, the organ is always well balanced with the orchestra, and that’s good to hear.

JJP

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