third symphony

Boston Symphony Orchestra (Munch) – ‘Saint-Saens: Symphony No.3 in C minor, Organ’  An SACD review by Mark Jordan

Boston Symphony Orchestra (Munch) – ‘Saint-Saens: Symphony No.3 in C minor, Organ’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

The place where most performances of French composer Charles Camille Saint-Saëns’ ‘Third Symphony’ go wrong is on the podium. For such a well-known and popular piece, it is astonishing how truly few outstanding, idiomatic recordings there have been. I have about twenty recordings in my collection, but I would call only a handful of them worthy performances. What’s even more amazing is to see some of the star conductors who have missed the target completely: Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy (at least in his later versions), Jean Martinon, Ernest Ansermet, Seiji Ozawa, Michel Plasson. What most often happens is that the conductor approaches the work as a high romantic blockbuster and attempts to make it as grandiose as possible. But despite the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel of the finale, Saint-Saëns’ ‘Organ Symphony’ is actually a lithe work. The composer was responding to the spirit of the times in giving his work a grand, often turgid surface, but at heart, Saint-Saëns was a classicist. Conductors who look for a psychological probing of the depths end up bloating the work with baggage that it shouldn’t have to bear. Those few conductors who see past the stereotype of nineteenth century romanticism and treat the work leanly actually end up revealing for more about this elegant yet elusive composer: His reticence itself speaks volumes. The other perennial problem of successfully performing this work is one of virtuosity. It is an orchestral showpiece, but a potentially treacherous one, to be sure. Many performances obsess about hitting the right notes and thus end up missing the “music” completely. Fortunately, the RCA reissue of Charles Munch’s classic Boston Symphony recording from 1959 brings one of the few insightful recordings of this piece to Super Audio Compact Disc, in three-channel sound. read more…

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