Classical Notes
title - Saint-Saens' Symphony # 3 (

Saint-Saens' Symphony # 3 ("Organ"), is the composer's most famous instrumental work. In this article, we discuss the composer's outlook the symphony's structure, some of its most impressive recordings, and then some sources of information, both for this article and for further reading.

Itís amazing to think of all those concert hall stages that are dominated by a frame or backdrop of an array of humongous (and vastly expensive) organ pipes. Classical ClassicsThe Philadelphia Orchestra on Stage Yet how many times have you actually heard that organ played in a concert?

One of the few works able to redress that meager return on the buildersí investment is the Symphony # 3 in c minor by Camille Saint-SaŽns. Yet, while it has fared well on record Ė and especially as a hi-fi demo Ė it has been curiously absent from concert programs, where it would seem to be a natural fit, if only to blow the dust out of those idle organ pipes.

Written in 1886, just as the first glimmer of sound recording began to coalesce in inventorsí minds, the so-called ďOrgan SymphonyĒ was a mix of old and new, as would be expected from its composer.

Title -- the ComposerWith characteristic modesty, Saint-SaŽns aptly described himself as an eclectic: ďThis is perhaps a great defect, but it is impossible for me to correct it; one cannot alter oneís nature.Ē On the one hand, he respected the abstract refinement of music of the past. He disparaged the emotional excess of his time and deeply admired Bach and Mozart for never having sacrificed form to expression: ďAs high as their inspiration may soar, their musical form remains supreme and self-sufficient.Ē Portait of Saint-Saens He applied that ideal to his own outlook: ďThe artist who does not feel completely satisfied by elegant lines, by harmonious colors and by beautiful successions of chords does not understand the art of music.Ē

At the same time, Saint-SaŽns was in the vanguard of progress. In 1871 he co-founded the Sociťtť Nationale de Musique, which advocated and nurtured a vast number of new works by a virtual whoís-who of French composers, drawing their attention away from opera toward instrumental music. (Twenty-five years later he resigned in a chauvinistic protest over the encroachment of German music.) His ground-breaking spirit endured to the very end of his vast creative life, when he became the first composer of any note to write a film score Ė for the 1908 LíAssassinat du duc de Guise which, while stage-bound and barely 15 minutes long, was one of the first attempts to bring a dollop of genuine culture to the masses. (In a perhaps unintended posthumous salute to the composerís pioneering role, the first orchestral recording in the new electrical process, by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, was of Saint-SaŽnsí most popular work, his Danse Macabre.)

All of this was made possible by Saint-SaŽnsí astounding talent. Harold Schonberg considers him ďprobably the most awesome child prodigy in the history of music.Ē After spending his first two tubercular years in a sanitarium, Saint-SaŽns wrote his first composition at age 3 and by age 10 was offering to play as encores at his piano recitals any of Beethovenís 32 sonatas, which he had committed to his phenomenal memory. Beyond quickly developing into one of the most acclaimed pianists and organists of his time, he found time to become an astronomer, an archeologist, a playwright, a pioneer of existential philosophy, a critic of literature, painting and theatre, a seasoned traveler (not just to the usual Western musical capitals, but to such exotic locales as Ceylon, Uruguay and Southeast Asia) Ė and, of course, a prolific composer in nearly all the standard genres.

While his culture and scholarship may have been colossal, and while he championed the music of the future, Saint-SaŽns never melded the vast amount and diversity of information he had absorbed into creating a fresh style of his own. Rather, as the 2001 Grovesí Dictionary of Music and Musicians notes, his art was one of amalgamation and adaptation rather than pursuing new and original paths. Indeed, from the outset of his fame, critics expected so much from such a prodigiously gifted composer that they consistently drew a sharp distinction between two aspects of his work, summarized in the oft-repeated adage that his output was ďbad music, but well written.Ē Thus, the 1908 edition of Grovesí (while Saint-SaŽns was still active) saluted him as a ďconsummate master of compositionĒ and declared that ďno one possesses a more profound knowledge than he does of the secrets and resources of the art,ĒHerbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG LP) yet deplored that ďthe native faculty does not keep pace with the technical skill of the workman. Ö His incomparable talent for orchestration enables him to give relief to ideas which would otherwise be crude and mediocre in themselves.Ē By the 1954 edition, the sting of that barb took a more constructive turn, although the basic critique remained: ďHis imagination asserts itself far more in the treatment of his materials than in actual invention.Ē Similarly, the 1954 Gramophone Record Guide dismisses ďeven his best workĒ as ďundeniably superficialĒ and regrets the ďthoughtless mere craftsmanship that is the baneĒ of his music. James Deane adds that Saint-SaŽns may have been a consummate craftsman, but without ďthat final something by which a talented creator becomes an immortal one.Ē

In recognition of his influence, Saint-SaŽns was revered during his lifetime as an icon of French music, but his reputation soon dimmed. Shortly after his death, the influential critic Reynaldo Hahn asserted that ďit takes courage to admire Saint-SaŽns.Ē Writing in 1941, Paul Henry Lang saluted him as "the perfect type of the eclectic musician of talent" but opined that "his clever music lacks conviction and ardor and today is faded." As late as 1975, a writer claimed ďonly occasional and limited interestĒ in his music. Even so, Saint-SaŽnsí influence vastly outstripped his popularity. Edward Downes credits him for having rescued French instrumental music from the backwaters into the mainstream of European development – and encouraged innovation by others – to such an extent that by the turn of the last century France assumed international leadership of the musical avant-garde movement, beginning with Debussy, a dominance that extends into our time through Boulez.

Writing in 1955, Deane noted with irony that were Saint-SaŽns still living, he doubtless would be chagrined that his chief fame then would have resided in such short and relatively unambitious works as his tone poem Danse Macabre, his Havanaise and Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin, and his Carnival of the Animals (which displayed his extraordinary flair for parody but which he refused to have published during his lifetime). Yet, nowadays his opera Samson et Dalila, his cello, piano and violin concertos Ė and his Organ Symphony – have all taken their place in the affections of opera and music fans.

Title -- the SymphonyThe Organ Symphony often is viewed in the same light as Saint-SaŽns' general appraisal – more masterful in its construction than in its inspiration. Even so, it is widely admired for what it is. In the words of Philip Hale, a late 19th century Boston critic, it ďhas the finest and most characteristic qualities of the best French music – logical construction, lucidity, frankness, euphony. The workmanship is masterly. The composer knew exactly what he wanted and how to express it.Ē

Ironically, although its claim to fame is the featured organ,James Levine and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG CD) the actual part for that instrument is quite simple, mostly relegated to deep pedal points and sustained chords that underpin the orchestral activity. Even so, the organ is completely silent for the first halves of both movements and during much of the rest as well. Although most recordings prominently credit the organ soloist, it would make as much sense to single out any of the orchestra members, as they have more to do and their parts require more skill. The other ďsoloĒ instrument is a piano, but its role, too, is barely worth the special mention often accorded, as it consists wholly of arpeggiated chords and scalar runs for all of a minute or so of the finale (played with four hands during eight bars). Rather, the organ and piano solos are a mere gloss in Saint-SaŽnsí overall orchestration in which, as Adam Carse points out, he achieves clarity, balance and variety by distinguishing the tone colors of melodic and accompanying instruments, carefully investing each instrumental group with a segregated function, and preserving their individuality with carefully-judged entries. Organist Michael Murphy further observes that the four voices of the organ (strings, principals, flutes and reeds) enabled Saint-SaŽns to double the tone colors of the orchestra's strings, winds, brass and percussion, thus vastly expanding the variety of instrumental nuances available for his use.

Beyond the precision of its construction, Downes places the Organ Symphony firmly in the Romantic tradition of its time due to its integration of the traditional four movements into two, themes that interconnect among movements (a continuation of the cyclical structure launched by Berlioz), its technique of thematic transformation, and a yearning tension and stylistic details (and, it might be added, a sheer sound) that recall Schubert, Liszt (to whom the score is dedicated) and even Wagner (whom Saint-SaŽns at first championed, but then turned against as his chauvinism grew, even urging a ban on Wagnerís music during World War I). Most other commentators, though, place Saint-SaŽns' music squarely within the former classical tradition; thus, Milton Cross lauds its lack of excessive emotion or philosophical implication, and its "crystalline beauty whose surface is not disturbed by passion."

The Organ Symphony was written in early 1886 for a concert of the Philharmonic Society of London for which Saint-SaŽns had been engaged as a soloist. Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony (DG CD) In a testament to his versatility, Saint-SaŽns conducted his new work after playing the solo part of Beethovenís Fourth Piano Concerto (led by Sir Arthur Sullivan of operetta fame). Rollin Smith notes that Saint-SaŽns was familiar with the organ in the Societyís concert hall, which he had played during an 1879 visit, and wrote his new symphony with its resources in mind. Smith speculates that the composer must have been disappointed to find that, unbeknownst to him, in the intervening years it had been replaced with an inferior instrument. Nonetheless, the new work was well received. Saint-SaŽns undoubtely was gratified, as he considered it the apex of his artistic and creative life: ďI have given all that I had to give. What I have done I shall never do again.Ē

Structurally, the work observes the four movements of the traditional Viennese symphony, but melds them into two – the first combines the conventional opening and adagio and the second the customary scherzo and finale. In oft-quoted program notes for the premiere (which is mostly a disappointingly uninformative, blow-by-blow mechanical description, with no hint of his inspirations nor interpretive insights), Saint-SaŽns boasted that this conflation enabled him to shun ďthe interminable repetitions which are more and more disappearing from instrumental music.Ē Jonathan Kramer suggests that Saint-SaŽns was able to avoid the need for recapitulations, and thus could abridge his structures, through his use of cylical form, which enabled him to defer the expected repetitions to later sections.
the nervous theme of the opening allegro
The nervous "echo" theme of the opening allegrothe theme of the scherzo
The theme of the scherzo
Even so, the result led one early critic to protest: ďThere is a great deal to admire in this glowing orchestral rhapsody, but we distinctly decline to term it a symphony.Ē

Indeed the first movement seems the furthest departure from established symphonic form and in many ways resembles a Liszt tone poem in which themes are transformed and structure is dictated more by a flow of seemingly spontaneous feeling than by the rigid dictates of established form. (Speaking of Liszt, many commentators mistakenly assert that the work was inspired by the death of Saint-SaŽnsí mentor and champion, but in fact Liszt died two months after the premiere and it was only the subsequently published score that was dedicated to his memory.) As the allegro section of the first movement constantly builds and subsides on a theme throbbing with nervous excitement (strongly reminiscent of the restless opening of the Schubert ďUnfinishedĒ Symphony) and a gently swaying counterthought, we are introduced to the large array of forces Saint-SaŽns deploys, as if to show, as he wrote, that ďthe time has come for the symphony to benefit by the progress of modern instrumentation.Ē Indeed, the scoring is for a large and variegated orchestra, including three flutes, a piccolo, two oboes, an English horn, two clarinets, two bass clarinets, two bassoons, a contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, a tuba, three timpani, cymbals, a triangle, the usual complement of strings – and, of course, the piano and organ.

After the opening materials sink into exhausted fragments, we arrive at an adagio, whose lovely theme is heard just as the organ makes its first entrance, subtly with pianissimo pedal points, and then gracefully evolves into an exquisite passage in which graceful triplet figures are passed back and forth between divided violins.
the first organ entry for the adagio of the first movement
The first organ entry way below the lovely theme
(from the autograph score)
All this time, Saint-SaŽns seems to be teasing us, as the organ, finally heard, remains resolutely and discretely in the deep background, merely sweetening and underpinning the movement, which ends on a mystical tone wavering between D-flat major and E minor.

The pace immediately takes off with the opening of the second movement, a sort of scherzo (again fueled by an agitated theme of quick repeated notes) and a brisk trio with hints of a broad chorale theme to come. Incidentally, note the quirky way that Saint-SaŽns, seemingly as a means of flaunting his prowess, notates the opening themes of both movements – the first creates a sort of blurred echo effect that can sound like sloppy playing, as each note of the melody proper is preceded by an identical companion, and the second places the downbeat and bar lines in places seemingly at odds with where we naturally hear the accents and rhythm. (As a further testament, albeit subtle, to his progressive sense, Saint-SaŽns writes the finale chorale in alternating measures of 9/4 and 6/4, thus effectively casting it in a highly unusual time signature of 5 overall beats to each phrase – a full decade ahead of Tchaikovskyís famous 5/4 ďwaltzĒ in his ďPathetiqueĒ Symphony.)

the organ chorale of the finale
The organ chorale of the finale

The second trio fades away to prepare for the moment for which Saint-SaŽns has kept us waiting up to now – the entrance of the organ in all its sonic splendor – and he finally delivers with a mighty 3 Ĺ octave C-major chord (marked only forte, although few players can resist the temptation to blast it out at maximum volume). The remainder of the triumphant and glorious finale is judiciously paced, with cymbal-capped climaxes alongside sufficient respites to avoid tiring our ears. (J. McKay Martin suggests that the liturgical quality of its powerful chorale theme is a tribute to Liszt, who ended his life as an abbot, withdrawn from the virtuoso musical life on which his fame was founded.) In the magnificent concluding coda the entire orchestra joins the organ in a jubilant sustained C-major chord while the timpani pound out the rhythm, written in 3/1 time to emphasize its majesty.

Title -- Some RecordingsThere seem to be no descriptions of Saint-SaŽnsí conducting,Saint-Saens at the organ but perhaps we can infer something of his style from critical appraisals and recordings of his solo playing. Commentators generally agreed that on both piano and organ he played objectively and fast, with clarity, moderation, restricted dynamics, an impeccable technique and a near complete absence of emotion, rubato or even legato – as Claudio Arrau summarized it: ďIce cold but amazing.Ē (James Lyons likens this to fulfillment of the Gallic ideal of musique pur – and, after all, among Saint-SaŽnsí many other achievements he was an existential philosopher and thus believed in ďart for artís sake.Ē) He made no organ records (indeed, I am unaware of any organ recordings at all during the acoustical era), but we do have a number of piano rolls which he cut in 1905 using the Welte system (that recorded not only the notes but the pianistís touch and thus gives a fairly accurate impression when reproduced properly). Although made at age 70, when a critic described his New York recital as giving no sign of eloquence or feeling that even scratched the surface, they dispel any notion of tedium or dry mechanics. Thus, his piano transcription of his Rouet díOmphale orchestral tone poem brilliantly reflects its shifting moods, and his negotiation of the vertiginous onslaught of dense notes in his Rhapsodie díAuvergne leaves no doubt as to the wealth of feeling he injected into his playing.

Nonetheless, despite the evidence of Saint-SaŽnsí own potent performing style, nearly all conductors adhere to the written descriptions of his presumed dry, objective esthetic and thus tend to approach the Organ Symphony as tolerating little interpretive leeway. So rather than attempt a comprehensive survey, Iíve tried to focus on recordings of historical import.

Piero Coppola, Grand Orchestre Symphonique du Gramophone (1930, 33í, Lys CD)

As part of his pioneering series of initial inscriptions of the core French orchestral repertoire, Coppolaís Organ Symphony is a fine, largely idiomatic introduction to the work, with an overall light touch and shapely phrases. Well-paced and energetic, its strong dynamics and subtle tempo adjustments add interest to the occasionally repetitive sequencing. Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony (RCA LP)Piero Coppola conducts the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony (Lys CD) The finale is presented as strong and majestic rather than scintillating or stirring, although the pace does seem a bit labored and formal as it progresses – until Coppola injects extreme tempo variation into the closing pages (including deceleration before the final sustained chord, a gesture for which there is no indication in the score, but an interpretive tradition that would be shared by many subsequent conductors). The recording is rich and detailed for its time, but strings tend to dominate the balance and some elements are blurred, including elusive pizzicati in the adagio, cymbals in the finale and brass figures in the final climax. The bass is surprisingly strong but, as in nearly all pre-stereo recordings, it lops off the bottom octave of the organ that plays such a crucial role in this particular work. One telling touch that speaks to Coppolaís integrity – he purposely underplays the organís entrance to herald the finale, an anti-dramatic gesture that few would resist the temptation to follow but which is wholly consistent with the score, which cranks other dynamics up to fff but marks the entrance merely as f.)

Arturo Toscanini, NBC Symphony (1952, 35í, RCA LP, BMG CD)

Toscanini had been conducting the Organ Symphony for 54 years by the time this recording was made. Although derived from a broadcast concert in Carnegie Hall rather than the sterile studio he usually used, there still is only the slightest hint of ambience, and the sound, like the reading, is rather clinical in its sharply-etched detail, and even sounds a bit fierce with prominent winds and nasal brass. Tempos tend to be rigid, even to the point of resisting the composerís indications of stringendo (ďgradually fasterĒ) that tighten the coda. Yet Toscaniniís precision, and the sheer audibility of so many details, by themselves create ample excitement. Two sonic quirks – the piano is stripped of harmonics, resulting in a xylophone tonality, and, presumably to accommodate the technology of the time, organ notes are cut off sharply below the lowest A, resulting in pedal tones that pop in and out arbitrarily. But, as with most of Toscaniniís readings, this is a reliable guide to the music itself, shorn of most interpretive whims, and it works quite well on its (and Saint-SaŽnsí) own terms.

Charles Munch, Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York (1947, Columbia 78s and LP)
Charles Munch, Boston Symphony (1959, RCA LP, BMG CD)

Back in the day, when I was young and sought the comfort of conformity with established norms, whenever an ostensibly knowledgeable critic anointed a recording as definitive, I would bow to his presumed wisdom and revel in its guaranteed perfection. Since then Iíve come to understand that serious music is far more nuanced than any single performance can ever reveal, and that such judgments at best are simplistic and at worst are misleading by discouraging exposure to other perspectives that explore the full glory of a piece and collectively serve to define its splendor far more than any single recording can ever convey. So here is my heartfelt plea: Please, dear reader, ignore all such eruptions of ego (including any of mine) and steer clear of artistic absolutes – instead, read what others have to say – and why – to form your own conclusions as to which recordings are apt to best meld with your own taste – or, better yet, those that are apt to complement or even challenge your comfort zones.

I mention this because throughout the half-century since its initial LP release, Munchís 1959 RCA recording of the Organ Symphony with the Boston Symphony has been universally hailed as the reference against which all others are to be measured (and invariably fall short). While eminent commentators are certainly entitled to (and should) disseminate their opinions, the snag with such unanimous acclamation has been to smother the merit of other worthy entries. Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony (RCA LP)Charles Munch and the Philharmonic Symphony of New York (Columbia LP) Chief among these was Munchís own 1947 Columbia recording with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York (unavailable on CD, but the French Quartier des Archives site has a fine download). Part of the initial excitement of the 1959 release was evident on its various covers, which proudly proclaimed it ďa Hi-Fi [or Stereo] Spectacular.Ē Indeed, it captured the full rumbling power of those window-shaking organ pedal chords that go all the way down to nearly 32 Hz, a region in which they are more felt than heard. Needless to say, with its exaggerated stereo spread and profound bass that tested the mettle of the finest speakers of the time, the record quickly became a favorite demonstration disc in both showrooms and homes. (CD transfers exploit one of the primary assets of that medium by enhancing the deep bass beyond the confines mandated by LP technology, where the tracking of such material, especially in inner grooves, imposed strict sonic limits.)

Munchís Boston remake unquestionably is a worthy performance (with abundant power and grace) and a richer recording (with especially lovely textures in the adagio). Yet from an interpretive perspective it is thoroughly eclipsed by the 1947 New York version. Munch soon would launch a long series of distinguished recordings with the Boston Symphony in 1949, but in this, his first American recording, he adds a thrilling sense of commitment, spontaneity and urgency that the calculated balances of the remake simply lack. Part of the difference lies in the timings – a relatively standard 35 minutes in 1959 but a daringly aggressive 31 earlier, with a gripping allegro that builds to thrashing climaxes and an especially breathless trio. True, the tympani are muffled, the organ is barely audible in parts of the adagio and the lowest octave of bass is missing, but the sheer focus and energy are awesome – as is the sheer beauty of the Philharmonicís playing, as if the New York musicians sought to do all they could to please this fresh European upstart. Departing from the score, Munch adds a huge retard approaching the final chord, as if to sigh in awe-struck relief at the extraordinary power he has unleashed.

Paul Paray, Detroit Symphony (1957, Mercury LP and CD)

Preceding Munch with a first stereo recording, but lacking RCAís vast marketing clout, Paray bestows a magnificent idiomatic reading of elegance, grace and precision, complete with an authentic ďFrenchĒ sound from the orchestra he had trained in Detroit (of all places). (Arguably, this is the workís first truly French reading – Coppola was trained in Italy, while Munch was Alsatian and presented a blend of French and German blood, both physiologically and esthetically.) Georges Pretre and the Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire (Angel LP)Paul Paray and the Detriot Symphony (Mercury LP) With prominent inner voices, Paray's lithe, supple, evenly-paced approach with restrained dynamics revels in the scoreís abundant coloration and echoes the descriptions (if not the evidence on record) of the composerís own playing. The impact is abetted by a superbly crisp and detailed recording with remarkably precise stereo imaging (all achieved elegantly with only three mics) that captures the clarity of the textures and invites understanding and appreciation of Saint-SaŽnsí gifts of orchestration that the blurrier acoustic of Munch and many others tends to obscure.

Georges PrÍtre, Orchestre de la Sociťtť des Concerts du Conservatoire (1963, EMI)

PrÍtre leads a strong, well-balanced performance and summons a sense of repose with more deliberate tempos, stretching the score to over 37 minutes. Perhaps in homage to an historic instrument, he brought his orchestra to a church (in this instance that of St. …tienne-du-Mont), whose grand organ was built in 1636 (since expanded and electrified). Its versatile tone transfigures the work – its sweet, light sound (shorn of any deep bass) adds to the adagio an aura of gentle refinement which Saint-SaŽns may not have intended yet sounds entirely apt, yet when unleashed for the finale, its brash, assertive tone not only overrides the entire orchestra but illuminates the texture in a blinding glare. Indeed, as the massive final chord decays into silence all we hear are the organís traces, as if to proclaim its steadfast endurance through the eons of musical evolution it had witnessed. A further aural bonus is the cathedral ambiance that further blends the sound into a unified whole – again, perhaps not the composerís ideal but a highly effective outcome nonetheless.

Jean Martinon, Orchestre National de la ORTF (1975, EMI)

Continuing in the path blazed by PrÍtre, Martinon also went to church for his recording, but rather than import a superstar organ soloist, as did all his predecessors, he used the permanent organist of his chosen instrument in the …glise Saint-Louis des Invalides in Paris. Similar in approach and paced nearly as slowly as PrÍtreís reading, Martinon compensates for some imprecise playing and a blurrier acoustic (that largely conceals the piano) by enhancing the drama with more prominent timpani and blasting out the final chorale with prodigious volume. Elsewhere, though, his casual approach can appear bland in comparison to othersí. Christian Badea and the Royal Philharmonic (Telarc CD)Jean Martinon and the Orchestre National de la ORTF (Angel LP) Martinon performed a great service by preceding this release with fine premiere recordings of Saint-SaŽns' first four symphonies (two of which the composer suppressed and thus are unnumbered). Written between his 15th and 24th years, they may not approach masterwork status but deserve far more attention, and provide far more enjoyment, than their general neglect would suggest.

Christian Badea, Royal Philharmonic (1991, Telarc)

While considering the steps taken by PrÍtre and Martinon to accommodate the venues where their organs of choice were permanently installed, Herbert von Karajan took the notion of portable geography to its ultimate limit in his rigid 1981 DG recording through the expedient of having his Berlin Philharmonic engineers simply dub in an organ recorded separately at the Notre Dame cathedral. The trend assumed a more esthetic purpose than sheer technological convenience in a 1991 Telarc release in which organist Michael Murray sought out French-built organs that would replicate the sound (voicing, tuning, size and room ambience) which he felt the composer would have recognized and wound up, in all places, with a brand new instrument in Naples, Florida. While the resultant blend is convincing and the fidelity is fine, the finale does tend to drag a bit. A welcome bonus is Saint-SaŽns' fine tone poem Phaťton.

Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra (1963, Columbia; 1980, Telarc)

And what were the Americans up to? Ormandyís first stereo recording of the Organ Symphony is widely admired, if fundamentally generic. (As with Munch, it replaced an earlier mono, but in this case similar, version.) Well-played but a bit crude and unfeeling in spots, it is nearly redeemed by a remarkably dynamic conclusion. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Telarc CD) While not touted as a hi-fi coup, the organ bass is extraordinarily strong, at least on the original LP issue (frankly, unnaturally so). At the very end of his extraordinary 44-year reign at the helm in Philadelphia, Ormandy led his forces in a remake for Telarc that matches his orchestraís trademark ravishing sound with the burgeoning labelís repute for extraordinary sound quality to produce a reading thatís hard to beat for the sheer beauty of its execution, although in lieu of hyperrealistic audio imagery, some details tend to be merged into a realistic concert-hall mix. Interpretively, though, Ormandy sends mixed signals – on the one hand, as a sure sign of maturity and sophistication, the organ is discretely kept in the deep background throughout the adagio, yet, as if to further exaggerate the imbalance of his Columbia LP, the bass at the conclusion of the finale is so ridiculously overbearing as to drive most speakers into sputtering distortion.

Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (1976, Columbia LP, Sony CD)

On the very cusp of his late style of drastically slow tempos for his DG live recordings, here, in one of his last studio sessions, Bernstein turns in the slowest of all Organ Symphony recordings (nearly 39 minutes) and unwittingly demonstrates the dangers of that approach. The immediate effect is to integrate the various sections with a common outlook and to avoid the feeling of fragmentation that the score otherwise can suggest. Yet the allegro and finale come perilously close to invoking the German mysticism against which Saint-SaŽns stood as a bulwark in order to nurture the French esthetic that he advocated so vigorously throughout his long life. Bernsteinís drastic deceleration before each of the organ chords that introduce the finale seems misplaced, and the deliberate pace of that entire section makes it sound far more mechanical than it should. Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony (Philips LP) Even so, his extreme slowdown before the adagio helps to prepare it more effectively than in conventional readings. Only in the swift scherzo and trio does a fair measure of Bernsteinís trademark vigor and drama return, further reflected in ardent playing and insistent timpani. Yet the overall impression borders on lethargy more than peaceful repose or pensive reflection.

Edo de Waart, San Francisco Symphony (1984, Philips)

Turning to the American West Coast, this fine rendition is wonderfully played and recorded. In lieu of the usual practice of presenting the work by itself, or with the occasional companion of a Saint-SaŽns tone poem or two, the LP was coupled with a far more creative companion – the wild finale of an organ symphony by Charles-Marie Widor, a compatriot contemporary of Saint-SaŽns. If the organ part of the featured work is disarmingly polite and simple, Widorís resplendently complex, extroverted and downright noisy piece serves as a spectacular complement to unleash and flaunt the full resources of the instrument.

Title -- Sources
I found the following especially helpful in preparing this article:

  • Rollin Smith: Saint-SaŽns and the Organ (Pendragon Press, 1991)
  • Harold Schonberg: The Lives of the Great Composers (Norton, 1981)
  • Milton Cross: Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and their Music (Doubleday, 1962)
  • Edward Downes: New York Philharmonic Guide to the Symphony (Walker & Co, 1976)
  • Groveís Dictionary of Music and Musicians
    • Sabina Teller Ratner and Daniel M. Fallon (article in 2001 edition)
    • ďM. D. C.Ē (article in 1954 edition)
    • M. Gustav Chouquet (article in 1908 edition)
  • Edward Sackville-West and Demond Shawe-Taylor: The Record Guide (Collins, 1954)
  • Adam Carse: A History of Orchestration (Keyen Paul, 1945)
  • Jonathan Kramer: Listen to the Music (Schirmer, 1988)
  • Robert Bager: Concert Companion (Whittlesey House, 1947)
  • Paul Henry Lang: Music in Western Civilization (Norton, 1941)
  • James G. Deane: Notes to the Toscanini/NBC Symphony LP (RCA LM-1874)
  • J. McKay Martin: Notes to the Pretre/Conservatoire LP (Angel S-35924)
  • James Lyons: Notes to the Paray/Detroit LP (Mercury SR 90012)
  • Michael Murphy: Notes to the Bedea/Royal Philharmonic CD (Telarc CD-80274)

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2010 by Peter Gutmann

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