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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, op.78 Organ (1886) [36:50]
Symphony in A major (c.1859) [26:30]
Le rouet d’Omphale, op.31 (1871) [8:19]
Carl Adam LandstrŲm (organ)
MalmŲ Symphony Orchestra/Marc Soustrot
rec. 26-30 August 2013, MalmŲ Concert Hall, MalmŲ, Sweden
NAXOS 8.573139 [71:40]

This is an attractive and interesting programme consisting of three pieces quite widely spaced throughout Camille Saint-SaŽns's long career. The Third Symphony and the short tone-poem Le rouet d’Omphale (‘Omphale’s Spinning-Wheel’) are well represented in the catalogue, while, as far as I’m aware, there is only one other version available of the early A major Symphony, that by Jean Martinon and the ORTF Orchestra on Brilliant Classics.

This A major Symphony is not a stunning youthful masterpiece, alla Puccini, Mendelssohn or Shostakovich; it’s an obvious apprentice work, jumping dutifully through all the Classical hoops and delivering nothing to frighten the horses. Saint-SaŽns was fifteen when he composed this, and there is certainly enough here to indicate both his remarkable talent and his technical accomplishment. There is a particularly attractive Larghetto with a Mendelssohnian feel to it, while its smooth melody hints at the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. Talking of hints, Saint-SaŽns’ first movement contains an amusing nod to Mozart in his use of the famous four-note theme from the finale of the Jupiter Symphony. So, a modest little work, but well worth hearing, and given a neat, characterful performance.

Le rouet d’Omphale is the best-known of a series of symphonic poems Saint-SaŽns composed using ancient Greek legends as his inspiration. This one tells of a curious episode in the life of Hercules, when he was forced to dress as a woman and become a servant to Omphale, the Lydian queen. One of his duties was to help with her spinning, so the main sections of the work have an appropriate delicacy. These are interrupted by darker music describing Hercules’ resentment. Saint-SaŽns employs unusual scoring for these moments – violin melodies doubled by trombones a couple of octaves below. The piece fades away gently, with a wonderful touch – a single, high violin harmonic bringing it to a close.

The main item on the agenda is the famous Organ Symphony, which is a bit of a ‘Marmite’ work is it not? I speak to many people who profess to hate the piece; but their dislike is invariably focused on the admittedly noisy finale. It’s sometimes forgotten that there are three previous movements, which contain much of the best music in the work. These provide a convincing narrative that makes sense of the barn-storming conclusion. Significant is the fact that France was still recovering from the disastrous Franco-Prussian wars, and this piece was something of a ‘gift to the nation’ - rather as Mahler’s Eighth was to be a couple of decades later. It was intended to lift national spirits — even though it was first performed in London. Saint-SaŽns himself regarded it as his greatest achievement, and it does seem to draw all the threads of this extraordinary musician’s career together. That's with the possible exception of his madcap humour, exemplified by the Carnival des animaux, written amazingly at the same time as the Organ Symphony possibly as a means of relaxation.

There are many fine and even great version of this work on disc – Ormandy, Munch, Barenboim and Martinon all come to mind. I’ve long been an admirer of Eschenbach’s reading, with Olivier Latry at the organ. That recording comes from Ondine, and has great couplings in the Poulenc Organ Concerto and the Barber Toccata Festiva. That said, I confess to having been immensely impressed by Soustrot’s reading on this new Naxos issue. He allows the work to unfold naturally but maintains strong momentum in the first and third movements. The glorious poco adagio, with its broad and noble melody, is played beautifully by the MalmŲ orchestra. Here again Soustrot finds a tempo which perfectly balances the needs for both expressive intensity and onward movement.

The finale may disappoint some listeners in that the organ does not simply dwarf the orchestra when it first appears in this movement, neither does it threaten to make your speakers disintegrate. There is a magnificent reedy brightness to the MalmŲ organ and the balance between it and the orchestra is excellent. There is an absence of excessive resonance, the acoustic being very much that of a concert hall rather than a boomy cathedral ambience, and this makes for clarity all the way through. There is so much detail to be heard, and after all, the organ only emerges to play a major role in the finale, being previously very much in the background.

Another great quality of Soustrot’s reading is the way he deals with the links between the various sections and movements. The short slow introduction leads into the Allegro, and here I loved hearing the two quiet timp strokes that provide that link, along with plucked strings. The suspenseful transitions from the first movement to the poco adagio, and especially from the lively scherzo to the finale, are characterised superbly. Often at these points, you can feel that the composer has simply run out of ideas, and the music hangs fire disastrously. Not here; Soustrot creates a sense of expectancy that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

My only disappointment – a slight one – came near the end, where for once the balance between organ and orchestra was less than ideal. The huge descending pedal notes in the organ taking us to the final cadence were not as clearly audible as they might have been.

That however is a rare shortcoming. This is a fine disc, with excellent orchestral playing throughout, guided by sure-footed stylistic and structural direction from Soustrot.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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