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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No 3 in C, Op 78, “Organ” (1886) [34.46]
Michael Murray, Cavaillé-Coll organ
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
Recorded at St. Francis de Sales Church, Philadelphia, PA, USA, February 6, 1980
Louis COUPERIN (1626-1661)
Chaconne in G [2.40]
Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971)
Carillon, Op 27 No 4 (1931) [5.42]
Musette, Op 51 (1951) [2.17]
Eugène GIGOUT (1844-1925)
Scherzo [4.16]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Pièce Héroïque, M.37 (1878) [8.41]
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Organ Symphony No 5, Op 42/1: Toccata (1880) [5.42]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantata BWV 29: Sinfonia (1931) [3.47] transcribed by Marcel Dupré
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Organ Symphony No 1 in D, Op 14: Finale (1898) [5.38]
Jacques-Nicolas LEMMENS (1823-1881)
Fanfare (1862) [1.49]
Michael Murray, Aeolian-Skinner organ by G. Donald Harrison.
Recorded at Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, USA, September 27, 1981
Notes in English.
Previously released as CD-80051 and CD-80104. SACD stereo 2.0
TELARC SACD 60634 [75.51]


Comparison Recordings:

Saint-Saëns, Organ Symphony, Comissiona, Baltimore SO, National Presbyterian Church, DC, organ, Silverline [ADD] DVD-Audio

Saint-Saëns, Organ Symphony, Munch, Boston SO, Symphony Hall organ, [AAD] JVC/BMG JMCXR-0002.

Dupré, Widor, Vierne, etc., Michael Murray, Boston organ, Telarc CD 80104

César Franck, complete organ music, Michael Murray, Toulouse organ, Telarc (2) CD 80234

This performance of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony is the only one of those considered here to have been actually recorded on a Cavaillé-Coll organ and the notes make much of that, stating quite correctly that this was the instrument for which the work was composed. The Boston SO and Baltimore SO recordings both use Æolian-Skinner organs built in 1950 and 1970 respectively, but certainly with the intention of playing the great French repertoire and presumably incorporating appropriate French characteristics. Indeed this organist chose the Boston organ for recording French repertoire, so the actual difference can’t be super-critical. In fact, all three organs sound magnificent and any differences between them are more likely due to choices made by the individual recording engineers than by inherent sound differences. Another point which should be made is that all three of these recordings were made by orchestras conducted by their long term music directors. The Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony organ part is extremely simple, requiring a heavy pedal foot and familiarity with the organ but no particular dexterity or musicality, or even personality, so all these organists do an absolutely perfect job.

The technical notes imply a great deal of sophistication, but when looked at carefully, say nothing more than that the digital master tape was made at 50kHz, rather than at the more usual 48kHz — a mere 4% improvement in resolution. The bit depth is not given, hence one must assume it is not terribly impressive, perhaps no more than the 16Bit CD standard. Hence what we have here is a slightly clearer CD recording touted up as an SACD. First they claim that duplication of the PCM master to the DSD digital tape system will avoid any artifacts of down-sampling from 50kHz, then they advise you to set your SACD player to the 50kHz “filter” position (My SACD player has no such settings, but it is not a high end, top of the line model.) indicating that some artifacts remain to be compensated for. The only safe standard is the resulting sound quality, which is in every way impressive, independent of attempts to wave about numbers and terminology. But two channels is two channels; in both SACD and CD this is a front-and-center balance with little sense of spread and no rear channel information, although your surround-sound decoder can add a nice sense of ambience.

The Ormandy recording achieves, as do the others, a thrilling sense of massiveness in the sound; he under-scores the final low organ pedal notes with a bass drum roll which the other conductors do not consider necessary. Ormandy engages in some odd tempo variations in the finale. For orchestral detail and massiveness of sound, this Ormandy performance wins by a hair, but all are impressive recordings. I will probably always prefer the Munch performance I grew up with, and the Comissiona version has the most impressive surround-sound, an important consideration when listening to any organ recording. If you want to wait for a newer state-of-the-art sound version, keep in mind that all these recordings are at least 20 years old. Nobody has had the courage to challenge them recently, and this situation may continue for some time to come.

While I do not have the original CD issue of the Saint-Saëns to compare, I do have that of the organ pieces. There is an improvement in the sound on the hybrid SACD CD tracks over those on the original CD issue which is easily noticeable on my “C” music system. Likewise, the Hybrid SACD CD tracks decode nicely into convincing surround sound for all selections.

The “French encores” as performed by Michael Murray are all interesting but none of this music is exceptional and I doubt if anybody will buy this disk for this music, although as a technical demonstration of the resources and size of the Boston organ it is very impressive. Organ specialists may have other recordings of this music they prefer, most notably Murray’s set of the complete Franck organ music recorded by Telarc on a Cavaillé-Coll organ in Toulouse, France. That performance of the Pièce Héroïque is somewhat different, as the Toulouse organ seems smaller than the Boston Organ, or perhaps Murray is not in quite such a show-off mood.

Murray was a student of Dupré and has been considered an authority on that composer, and has issued a number of recordings of that composer’s music which, again, specialists will likely already own. In general Murray shows ability to control a large pipe organ expressively but he does not have the rhythmic sense necessary for Bach and much other organ music, even some French organ music, so he is not my first choice for anything here but the Franck.

Paul Shoemaker

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