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
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
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.
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,
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.
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
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.)
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.
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.
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