Saint-Saëns, Organ Symphony, Comissiona,
Baltimore SO, National Presbyterian Church, DC, organ, Silverline
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
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.