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Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Symphony in c [29’15"]
Jeux d’enfants Op, 22 – Petite suite [10’57"]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 ‘Organ Symphony’* [34’51"]
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Bernard Haitink
*Jean Guillou (organ)
San Francicso Symphony Orchestra/Edo de Waart
Recorded in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, September 1977 ADD; *Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, April 1984 DDD

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Bernard Haitink has justly been praised for his excellence in the music of Ravel and Debussy. Here he reminds us once again what a fine exponent of French music he is. Bizet’s youthful Symphony is a delightful and engaging piece, which comes off very well in his hands. The first movement is crisp and alert, the music beautifully articulated by the Concertgebouw players. There’s a gentle gravity to the slow movement; the sinuous oboe solo is lovely and in fact all the wind principals distinguish themselves with some poised and polished playing. Though Haitink imparts a suitably rustic vigour to the scherzo the playing remains cultivated. The finale fizzes and evidences Bizet’s good humour. This is, in sum, a performance that wears a smile ... but not an inapposite cheeky grin! I enjoyed it very much.

The Jeux d’enfants suite is no less successful. In particular the second movement, ‘Berceuse’ features hushed, silken strings and some gently radiant wind playing. It’s just a gorgeous miniature. The concluding ‘Galop; Le Bal’ is an infectious delight. All in all these winning Bizet performances show Haitink at his best, displaying sensitivity, attention to detail and a willingness to let the music speak for itself.

Saint-Saëns’ most popular symphony may not be a towering masterpiece but it’s a most enjoyable work, perhaps in part coming under the heading of "Naughty but Nice." This recording was, I believe, Edo de Waart’s second traversal of the piece. As I recall, he had previously recorded it with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, a version that I have not heard. This performance starts in a rather subdued vein and I found that for optimum results I had to set the volume at a higher level than was necessary for the Bizet items. However, I soon realised that it was not just a question of playback levels when the strings "chugging" figure launches the main allegro (at 1’03" here). Crossing to the other American seaboard, as it were, and listening to Charles Munch’s RCA performance with the Boston Symphony one experiences a different intensity of music-making. There’s so much more vitality in the Bostonian account. Things improve as de Waart unfolds the first movement but I still had a nagging feeling of something being held back

The San Francisco strings start the slow movement very nicely indeed (though it must be said the Boston strings sound even richer). On the plus side, de Waart’s restraint prevents the kind of wallowing which can easily occur in this music and that’s something I applaud. In de Waart’s hands the scherzo is agile and well sprung and the presto sections glisten and have a proper sense of dash.

When organist Jean Guillou launches the finale we realise what a mighty beast is the Ruffatti Organ in Davies Hall. Previously the instrument has made a very quiet, but telling, contribution to the slow movement but now, rightly, it is unleashed in all its splendour; after all, this is a movement in which there can and should be no half measures; one just has to go for it! The organ enriches the textures mightily and there is a particularly impressive pedal sound - a 32-foot stop, I fancy. As I indicated, de Waart and his forces play the movement for all it’s worth and the results are impressive, though here the listener is aware more than elsewhere of the resonance of the hall. It has to be said, however, that Munch’s finale is pretty spectacular in sonic terms too and remarkably so for a recording made in April 1959 - goodness knows what it sounds like on SACD! - I also feel that Munch displays a greater degree of panache here as elsewhere in the work, while at the same time keeping a tight rein on proceedings.

If one is just shopping for a version of the Saint-Saëns symphony then the palm must still go to Munch. However, this de Waart account will give much pleasure and the Bizet couplings are a delight.

An enjoyable and recommendable coupling.

John Quinn

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