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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani (1938) [22:38]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor (Organ) (1886) [34:47]
James O’Donnell (organ)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. live, 26 March 2014, Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed as a 24/96 Studio Master from Qobuz
Pdf booklet and artwork included

I first encountered the French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin when he made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2010. He gave insightful and exhilarating performances of works by Messiaen, Prokofiev and Berlioz that couldn’t fail to impress. Alas, his subsequent Rotterdam Philharmonic recordings of the Symphonie fantastique and Ein Heldenleben (BIS) weren’t in the same league and made me wonder if I’d misjudged this young maestro. Then in March 2014 I chanced upon the BBC Radio 3 broadcast of this Poulenc/Saint-Saëns concert and revised my opinion yet again.

The prospect of hearing this coupling in uncompressed sound was very enticing indeed, not least because I’d get to hear the newly refurbished RFH organ in all its splendour. The Poulenc concerto, which I came to know via the classic Simon Preston/André Previn account (Warner-EMI), is delivered here with a bright spikiness that took my breath away. This recording is a pretty fair representation of the Festival Hall’s clean, dry acoustic, and while the organ has never been known for its low-end punch it’s in full, confident voice throughout.

The throat-grabbing start to the Andante and the restless timp figures that follow are superbly projected, and the LPO play with a mixture of pliancy and bite that I haven’t heard from them in ages. Balances are good and the all-important timps are commendably taut and powerful. Goodness, this is an edgy, exciting performance; the Allegro giocoso is characterised by gut-gouging string playing and the Andante moderato finds O’Donnell at his most persuasive and pellucid. The depth and range of colour picked up by this fine recording is simply marvellous.

Nézet-Séguin brings out all the contrasts in this bipolar score with a confidence and flair that one normally associates with conductors of far greater experience. His grip is tight but never throttling and he’s fortunate to have at his fingertips a band that responds with alacrity to his every demand. The short Tempo Allegro, molto agitato is as gnarly as I’ve ever heard it, and that dialogue between organ and timps is as combative as it gets. Contrast that with the melting strings in the Très calme: Lent and the skipping figures in the last section and you have the full measure of this piece and the combined skills of its executors. There’s no applause after the work’s arresting sign-off, although I did insert a few ‘huzzahs’ of my own.

As much as I relished the thought of hearing the concerto again Nézet-Séguin’s airily propulsive account of the symphony was the main attraction for me. The opening Adagio – Allegro moderato has the same clarity and sense of purpose that defines the Poulenc, yet the music never sounds brittle or rhetorical. The fairly close recording zeroes in on the score’s tiniest details and the conductor shapes and guides it all with considerable elan. Those quiet pizzicato strings and the noble organ’s first entry are exquisite; as for the LPO they play with enviable poise and point.

So often this symphony is filled with more hot air than a Montgolfier balloon, yet here it’s blessed with just the right degree of buoyancy. Thankfully the organ isn't too dominant; indeed, O’Donnell’s judicious control of dynamics has a lot to do with the aerated, hear-through feel of this performance. Meanwhile Nézet-Séguin coaxes telling, rarely discernible colours from his attentive players. The Allegro moderato – Presto is cleanly articulated and the piano is easily heard. Phrasing may seem a tad precipitous at times and one might wish for a bit more warmth to the overall sound, but that’s more than compensated for by the many pleasures presented here.

The latter part of the symphony is apt to dissemble, and while Nézet-Séguin doesn’t entirely avoid those pitfalls he does minimise them. The organ’s magisterial return is nicely scaled and the tramping finale is tastefully done. The cymbals are well caught – no distracting spit or spotlighting – and, as paradoxical as it may seem in this context, the work moves towards a thrillingly proportionate and colourful close. No grandstanding, just a thoroughly musical apotheosis. Now there is applause, and it’s well deserved. What a pity that someone in the audience yelps so loudly a nanosecond after the music has ended; alas, it's a tiresome but all too prevalent practice these days. The very readable liner-notes, which include details of the organ refurb, complete a most desirable issue.

Nézet-Séguin rescues an old warhorse from the knacker’s yard; his bracing account of the Poulenc concerto is a substantial bonus.

Dan Morgan

Masterwork Index: Saint-Saëns symphony 3