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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Alborada del gracioso (1904-1905) [7:47]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899) [6:03]
Rapsodie espagnole (1907-1908) [15:27]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, Organ (1886) [35:00]
Joseph Adam (organ)
Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot
rec. live, S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington, 19-21 September 2013 (Ravel), 27-30 June 2013 (Saint-Saëns)
Reviewed as a 24-bit download
Pdf booklet included

Times are tough for the world’s great orchestras, many of which now record on their own labels and offer CDs and downloads via their websites or third-party retailers. As a business model it seems to work well for the San Francisco Symphony, the LSO, the LPO and the Mariinsky Orchestra. Most recently, the Berliner Philharmoniker resurrected their short-lived own label with an impressive package of Schumann symphonies in a variety of physical and downloadable formats (review). The Seattle Symphony, once so familiar on Delos and then Naxos, are among the latest ensembles to go it alone; this collection of French potboilers is one of their first releases.
The orchestra’s website directs downloaders to iTunes and Amazon, although the 24-bit version under review is available from for $17.36; this represents a small premium over the equivalent CD from ArkivMusic. Unusually eclassical don’t specify the original sampling rate, although spectrum analysis suggests it's likely to be 88.2-96kHz. On paper at least this looks like a decent proposition, given that competing 24-bit flacs can cost considerably more. The conductor Ludovic Morlot is new to me, but the music certainly isn’t; and the inherent problem with such a traditional programme is that it’s up against formidable competition.
Seconds into Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso and the veracity of that last statement is all too evident. For a start the orchestra aren’t on top form; what strikes me most, though, is the soupy, unidiomatic reading of this classic. Not only is the performance lacking in sophistication it’s also short on flash and fire. True, the climaxes are impressive – albeit in a superficial sense - but otherwise the band seem to be playing on autopilot. The remaining Ravel items don’t fare much better, although the enthusiastic audience reaction - hastily faded - suggests otherwise. As if that weren’t dispiriting enough the sound is dry and lifeless; that may not be audible on an mp3 or Mastered for iTunes, but it’s the kiss of death in high-resolution terms.
The pièce de résistance here is the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony, underpinned as it is by the auditorium’s 4,489-pipe Watjen concert organ. Alas, that performance is just as dreary as its predecessors, if not more so. Morlot’s moulded phrasing, foursquare rhythms and the recording’s complete lack of atmosphere are frankly ruinous; even worse, that mighty organ sounds puny. Indeed, at times it’s hard to believe the instrument’s in the same hall, except in the closing pages; here conductor and engineers pull out all the stops for a blazing if somewhat rhetorical finale.
Bland performances notwithstanding, this release might just be acceptable as a cheap, low-res download or as a post-concert memento. However, as a pricier high-res offering it’s far less appealing. Also, the booklet, stuffed with encomia to the orchestra’s benefactors, speaks of a certain parochialism that’s at odds with the professionalism and style of other in-house labels.
Run-of-the-mill readings with sound to match; not an auspicious start for this new label.
Dan Morgan

Masterwork Index: Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony