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Joseph JONGEN (1873-1953)
Symphonie Concertante, Op. 81 (1926) [36:25]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 'Organ', Op. 78 (1886) [36:29]
Olivier Latry (organ)
Orchestre  Philharmonique de Liège/Pascal Rophé
rec. 10-14 July 2006, Salle Philharmonique, Liège, Belgium
CYPRES CYP7610 [72:54]

A critic once remarked that Saint-Saëns composed ‘as an apple tree produces apples’, yet he is probably best known for just a handful of works, among them Carnival of the Animals and the ‘Organ’ Symphony. One might be forgiven for thinking recordings of the latter grow on trees – there are so many in the catalogue – yet only a few are really convincing performances. As for Jongen there is a trickle of new discs, among them Hyperion’s Mass for choir, organ and brass, which received a favourable response from John Quinn (see review).
The Jongen Symphonie Concertante is the first item on the disc, played by his hometown band, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège under Pascal Rophé. Not a well-known ensemble, perhaps, but the organist Olivier Latry will be much more familiar. He is highly regarded for his Messiaen interpretations and has recorded a showpiece SACD for DG, Midnight at Notre-Dame (4748162). More recently he played in the much-praised Eschenbach/Philadelphia SACD of the Saint-Saëns, coupled with Barber’s Toccata Festiva and Poulenc’s Organ Concerto (Ondine ODE10945). Both are pretty spectacular, although in the case of the Eschenbach I felt the reading wasn't particularly idiomatic; also the Kimmel Center organ is splendid but it’s just too dominant.
The more modest Liège instrument, a recently restored Schyven built in 1888 for the Brussels Exhibition and transferred to the city in 1889, makes its entrance right at the start of the fugal Allegro. It is clear from the outset that this isn’t an organ concerto but, as Jongen himself admitted, a work in which the organ takes on a ‘suitably preponderant part’. There is a pleasing balance between orchestra and soloist; the lowest pedals are perfectly audible, the musicians easily heard as well. What the orchestral writing may lack in variety and invention it makes up for in joie de vivre. And at 4:25 and 5:30 the big moments are pretty impressive; again, the engineers maintain a believable balance throughout. The movement ends with a quiet, rather lyrical episode, thrillingly underpinned by the organ.
The Divertimento is altogether more playful, with some spirited playing from the organist – not to mention an extended rather solemn passage more suited to a Mass – before the orchestra takes up the narrative. The Liège Philharmonic may not be a first-rate ensemble but they are alert and play with point and passion when required. The movement does come close to outstaying its welcome, which is a pity as the Allegro has no ‘flat spots’ to speak of. The ending, though, is ear-catching, with its rippling harp figures over an organ pedal.
The Molto lento begins with a quiet, meditative introduction for orchestra, the organ very much in the background until the bell-like orchestral figures give way to the first big tuttis. The writing gets rather ‘busy’ at this point  (7:30) and becomes a little strident. The brass certainly rise to the occasion at 7:50 and despite the rather repetitive material Jongen brings the movement to an expressive close. Again, there is a lovely quiet postlude, something of a Jongen trademark, it seems.
The Toccata’s swirling introduction and massive tuttis are anything but subtle (this time the organ and timps are very much in charge). Rophé keeps the music motoring – it’s a molto perpetuo, after all – relishing the tuttis. The fizzy cymbals add to the general mayhem in the overextended finale – shades of Arnold’s Grand, Grand Overture – but it’s exhilarating nonetheless. Not great music, perhaps, but great fun.
The restrained opening to the Saint-Saëns is a welcome relief after all this musical testosterone, the pizzicato basses and timps clear and focused. The orchestral writing is in another league, with all the delicacy, colour and nuance that the Jongen simply lacks. There is also a sense of inner tension and of a larger musical edifice being carefully constructed. Even though the tuttis are powerful they seem to grow naturally, and in this respect the present recording is far preferable to the Eschenbach. The Cyprès recording, although not an SACD, is commendably clear and weighty, with a fair amount of detail. And even though the orchestral playing isn’t top drawer the music hangs together very well, which is far more important.
The entry of the organ should be thrilling  – and it is, the lowest notes guaranteed to give your woofers a workout. The aural impact is much more satisfying than on the Eschenbach. There is also something of that distinctive French timbre to the woodwind, which gives the music more character than the Philadelphians can quite muster. (What a lovely lyrical end to the Adagio, too.)
Rophé keeps the tension high in the Allegro moderato, the piano’s rhapsodic passages easily discernible in the orchestral mix. At this point in the Eschenbach interest and momentum flag and in the Maestoso the huge Kimmel Center organ piles Ossa on Pelion. The Liège instrument seems an ideal weight and sounds splendid in its romping progress. Those somewhat fizzy cymbals add a little more piquancy than usual, which is a little disconcerting at first, but it’s nothing to worry about. Thankfully the sound picture holds up very well, the brass cutting through easily enough. The final dash is superbly managed – a triumph for all concerned.
I confess that having heard some of Jongen’s organ music before I wasn’t too enthusiastic about hearing the Symphonie Concertante. In the event I needn’t have worried, as it’s an enjoyable and occasionally rather exciting work. Not one to play too often, unless of course you want to annoy the neighbours. The Saint-Saëns is altogether more satisfying. Even in distinguished company – the symphony has been recorded by most of the top-notch orchestras and organists – this performance has all the adrenaline you could ask for. Well worth auditioning, even if you already have a dozen recordings of this work.
Dan Morgan


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