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Camille SAINT-SANS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 76 (Organ) (1886) [34:50]
Michael Murray (organ)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec. St. Francis de Sales Church, Philadelphia, February 1980
TELARC CD-80051 [34:50]
Experience Classicsonline

Veteran listeners could well trace developments in recording technology by perusing Eugene Ormandy’s discography of the Romantic specialties central to his repertoire. Take the present Organ Symphony: his first stereo recording of it, for CBS (or, Stateside, Columbia) - last seen on Sony Essential Classics - was already itself a remake of an earlier monaural version. By the early 1970s, when Ormandy and his orchestra had transferred their allegiance to RCA, the short-lived quadraphonic experiment afforded as good an excuse as any for another remake, fuller-sounding than its predecessor even in ordinary frontal stereo. By the arrival of digital techniques circa 1980, conductor and orchestra were shopping around for sessions, appearing both on RCA and on the Los Angeles-based Delos label. Organist Michael Murray’s contract with Telarc presumably accounts for the present “one-off."
The mild irony lurking in all of this is that, through all these technological changes, Ormandy’s basic interpretive posture changed little. In some pieces, there’d be the occasional “different” handling of detail - though, in the RCA Tchaikovsky Fourth and Rachmaninov Second, it could be the sort arising from over-familiarity rather than fresh insight. But the conductor stayed remarkably consistent over an exceptionally long career.
Thus, as a performance, this Organ Symphony differs little from its predecessors. Ormandy’s handling of the score, while musically sensible and clear-eyed, is also hard-edged and relentlessly serious, without the lightness that French music - yes, even noisy French music - requires. The scherzo-equivalent - the second movement opening - is grim and constrained, as is the contrasting trio-equivalent: even the pianists' scales have no lan. The proclamatory figures later in the movement insistently emphasize the individual beats. Even the poco adagio portion of the first movement, rich and serenely lyrical on RCA, seems less purposefully shaped here.
A peculiar rhythmic anomaly crops up here, with the music briefly but randomly lurching forward here and there - and I’m not talking about Ormandy’s customary acceleration during the opening theme, which once again gets the woodwinds and strings slightly unstuck from each other, as it did in all the previous recordings. I’m not sure how to account for any of this: unsteady rhythm wasn't one of this conductor's problems, nor can I imagine this as some sort of technical lapse on Telarc's part.
I don’t mean to ignore Murray’s work. But the organ plays an obbligato rather than a concertante role in this score - the part demands artistry, but not the sort that "shows." If you notice what the player is doing, something’s probably wrong. The organ’s first entry, at the start of the Poco adagio, is full-bodied and clear, and the opening chord of the finale-equivalent is brilliantly registered but one could say the same about many other performances.
The recording, made at a Philadelphia church, isn’t quite out of Telarc’s top drawer. If a church is spacious enough to accommodate an orchestra, it may well have the kind of resonant acoustic that engineers can find problematic. In this case, it affects the heavy brass reproduction, either by softening its definition or by giving it a harsh edge, compromising some aspects of the conductor’s chosen aesthetic either way. On the plus side, the sound encompasses a wide dynamic range without distortion and nicely integrates the organ into the sonic frame.
The lack of a filler may raise some eyebrows. Telarc has fitted out their SACD issue of this same performance (SACD-60634) with Murray's thirty-eight minute Encores la franaise recital (originally Telarc CD-80104), doubling the program length. I can understand the company's wanting to give purchasers an incentive to get the SACD, but still, even at mid-price, thirty-five minutes seems awfully mingy. In any case, if you want Ormandy in this symphony, his RCA version is the one to get, on both musical and sonic grounds.
Stephen Francis Vasta


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