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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op 78 (‘Organ’ Symphony) [36;28]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani in G minor [22:01]
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1934)
Symphony for Organ No 5: V: Toccata [6:43]
Christopher Jacobson (organ)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Kazuki Yamada
rec. 2017, Victoria Hall, Geneva. DSD
PENTATONE PTC5186638 SACD [65:31]

This programme has been put together to showcase the Van den Heuvel organ in Geneva’s Victoria Hall. Christopher Jacobson explains in the booklet that the hall’s original organ was constructed by Thomas Kuhn of Zurich. The dedication recital was given by Widor in 1894. Ninety years later, in 1984, it was destroyed in a fire and a replacement instrument was commissioned from the Dutch organ builders, Van den Heuvel, who were given a brief to imitate the style and sounds of Cavaillé-Coll organs.

Appropriately, the album ends with Widor’s most famous piece, indeed, one of the most renowned items in the entire organ literature. Actually, its inclusion seems to have been an afterthought. Jacobson relates that the sessions involving the orchestra ended with a day to spare so the Widor Toccata was recorded as a bonus track. I’m glad about that because without it, the disc’s playing time would have been less than an hour. He gives a splendid performance of this showpiece, adopting a nice steady pace – the piece is not a sprint, after all. As a result, he achieves excellent clarity throughout. We hear some real pedal power and I love the sound of the reed mixtures; the performance shows off the French accent of the Victoria Hall’s organ to good effect. After the quiet middle section, Jacobson produces a massive yet clear sound around 4:00 and his playing achieves genuine grandeur, leading up to truly majestic final chords.

Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony isn’t exactly short of recordings: there are 24 listed in our Masterworks Index and I reviewed a recent release conducted by Thierry Fischer only a few months ago. It might have been nice to compare and contrast this recording with Ernest Ansermet’s 1952 recording, made in the same hall but using the previous organ, but I don’t have that version in my collection. Instead, I turned to the tried and trusted Charles Munch Boston Symphony reading, set down in 1959. I have that in its CD incarnation and not in the SACD format that Paul Shoemaker reviewed. This Munch recording has been one of the top recommendations for this work for the best part of six decades now, and there are good reasons for that: it’s superbly conducted, very well played, and even though you can tell the recording wasn’t made yesterday the sound still has impact.

Right at the start of the symphony it seems to me that Munch achieves more of a sense of expectancy in the Adagio introduction than we experience from Kazuki Yamada. In the subsequent Allegro moderato Yamada gets good results, though it seems to me that Munch generates more thrust and excitement. It must be admitted, though, that, at least in its CD incarnation, the Munch recording is a definite second best to the Pentatone. The advantages of an excellent modern recording are even more evident in the Poco Adagio. We hear a wonderfully rich sound from the Swiss strings in the opening paragraph and the quiet, low organ contribution registers perfectly. In this same passage Thierry Fischer’s approach seems cooler and the sound of the organ on his recording is definitely less plush. Munch may have to yield to Yamada in terms of recorded sound but it’s the Boston Symphony’s strings who really capture the listener’s attention; they’re more expressive in their phrasing than either Yamada’s or Fischer’s orchestras. However, when the woodwind take up the theme Yamada wins points over his rivals for the winning way in which the violin countermelody comes across. As I listened to the Yamada performance, I enjoyed it very much. The orchestra plays beautifully and the blend, including that of the organ, is most successfully achieved. I also approve – even though this is a fairly minor pont – of the length of the gap before the start of the third movement on the Pentatone disc.

Yamada is sprightly and athletic at the start of the third movement but Munch really launches into it. Yamada’s account of the passage in which the pianos are involved – effectively the Trio section – has dashing brilliance. To be truthful, I thought there wasn’t much to choose overall between Yamada and Munch in this movement. Yamada handles the transition to the finale well though, maddeningly, the final woodwind chord is not intoned unanimously – surely, this should have been retaken? Munch achieves good suspense in this passage and the dramatic organ chord at the finale’s opening comes across excitingly, though the sound overloads a bit. Jacobson makes the organ a majestic presence at the start. When the great tune is unfolded Yamada takes it at a slightly broader pace than Munch and he presents it well. One tiny point, though: at the end of each phrase there’s a fairly quiet but important organ chord; you can’t really hear this distinctly from Jacobson but it’s just clear enough to register on the Munch and Fischer readings. The repeat of the tune on full orchestra and organ is imposing from Yamada; with Munch the first time round one is conscious of wiriness in the string tone and the second time round the brass and organ have a tendency to blare – those things are all the consequence of a sixty-year-old recording. Overall, Yamada does the finale well, though I feel that Munch invests the music with a little more urgency. One detail that I don’t care for at all in the Yamada version is a great rallentando towards the end (7:01 – 7:18). This is completely overdone and sounds vulgar. Munch’s slighter but still effective rall is much more tasteful; Fischer is between the two but leaning more towards the Munch way. However, it has to be said that of the three versions under consideration the organ on Fischer’s Hyperion recording sounds rather feeble besides the organs that Yamada and Munch have at their disposal. Considering the symphony as a whole, Munch’s performance still has the interpretative palm but Yamada’s opulent recording is impressive.

It’s not long ago that I considered a very fine live recording of the Poulenc Organ Concerto as performed by James O’Donnell with the London Philharmonic and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. I found it interesting to compare the opening of the work on this new disc with James O’Donnell’s version. Christopher Jacobson ensures a big, imposing beginning but, slightly to my surprise, it’s O’Donnell, playing on the organ of London’s Royal Festival Hall who produces a reedier and arguably more French timbre. As the first section of the concerto unfolds the Pentatone performance is good but I feel that Yannick Nézet-Séguin gets rather more searching playing out of the LPO strings. Yamada’s strings play with good bite in the Allegro giocoso though I feel the LPO offers just slightly more edge. Both organists are excellent in the extended solo passages in the Andante moderato section. In the concluding section – helpfully divided into four tracks on the LPO recording – the Très calme. Lent passage (2:42) is most persuasively done by Jacobson and Yamada, the lovely, bittersweet music coming over really well. They then bring out the fairground gaiety of the next section delightfully (from 5:04). Jacobson makes the reprise of the work’s opening gesture very dramatic and imposing (7:08), after which the concluding Largo is calm and serene until the grand statement that ends the work. This is a very good performance of Poulenc’s Concerto and the Victoria Hall’s organ, skilfully and imaginatively played by Jacobson, is well shown off.

Pentatone have presented these performances in their usual excellent sound. I listened to the SACD using the stereo option and obtained impressive results; I imagine that listeners who are set up for surround sound will enjoy this attractive programme even more.

John Quinn

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