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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, op. 78, Organ (1886) (transcr. for organ and orchestra by Guy Bovet) [38:34]
Romance for flute and organ, op. 37 (arr. Ulrich Meldau) (1871) [7:13]
Tarantella for flute, clarinet and organ, op. 6 (arr. Ulrich Meldau) (1857) [7:33]
Anne Freitag (flute)
Francesco Negrini (clarinet)
Ulrich Meldau (organ)
Capriccio Baroque Orchestra/Karel Valter
rec. 2017/18, Reformierte Kirche ZŁrich-Enge, Switzerland
AEOLUS AE-10097 [53:25]

Rearrangements of familiar classical works come around quite regularly and in more than a decade’s worth of MusicWeb reviewing I have encountered my fair share. They vary immensely in intention and scope. Some are based on little more than a gimmick, while others claim to offer useful new musical perspectives (I recall several friends developing at least a fleeting interest in Bach after hearing Wendy Carlos’s synthesised versions in the 1970s, review). The pleasure to be gained from listening to such individual – and often unique – ventures can vary enormously. On the one hand, I found reworkings of Rachmaninoff’s second symphony into a “piano concerto no. 5” (review) and Brahms’s violin concerto into a “piano concerto no. 3” (review) to be quite entertaining exercises. On the other, however, a potentially intriguing attempt to add some “authentic” oriental atmosphere to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade by utilising the unfamiliar sounds of the ney, qanun, darbuka, def, bendir and kudŁm (review) may have been fascinating in theory but, in practice, failed to engage me.

Now we have this rearrangement of Saint-SaŽns’s third symphony, originally composed at much the same time as Scheherazade and today almost as popular – not least for its finale’s familiar “big tune”. Its transcriber, Guy Bovet, contributes a very useful booklet essay to accompany this release, but I suspect that he is, at times, writing with his tongue quite firmly in his cheek. What, otherwise, are we to make of his claim that this is a work in which “organists… always get slightly frustrated: only with a suitably guilty conscience do they take their bow together with the conductor, having played no more than a few chords – not a fraction of what all the musicians in the orchestra have to do”. Putting aside my own cynical suspicion that in reality they’d be less likely to be feeling frustrated and guilty than laughing all the way to the bank, let’s agree to take Mr Bovet at his word. He has, in any case, now reworked the symphony in a way that seeks “to create”, as he puts it, “an organ part sufficiently rich and brilliant to present a rewarding task to the player.”

Is the result, as the CD’s rear cover somewhat tentatively suggests in an easily-missed footnote, a concerto for organ and orchestra? Mr Bovet himself, it seems, is inclined to think not, for his essay is hedged about with caveats and, indeed, outright denials. “One thing is clear:”, he writes, “if Saint-SaŽns had composed an organ concerto, it would not have resembled our adaptation… Saint-SaŽns’s composition, by nature a symphonic work without a soloist, does not truly allow such a transformation… Instead, [as] …adapted with respect for the original structure, the work remains essentially symphonic… [O]ne must face the fact that this symphony remains a symphony”.

Put at its simplest, then, what we have here is a recreation of the work that transcribes several of the familiar symphony’s orchestral sections – of varying lengths – for an organ that sometimes plays solo and at other times is accompanied by the orchestra. In general, the exercise is carried out rather successfully, to the extent that my colleague Stephen Greenbank, never, it seems, a great fan of Saint-SaŽns’s original version, has written that “this transformed newcomer has presented it in a new light. The more transparent sonorities, less heavy scoring, and ingenious solo part has, for me at least, opened the door on its manifold riches” (review). It ought, though, to be noted up front that the organ cannot replicate everything that an orchestra can do. In particular it proves unable at times to match the dexterity characteristic of much of Saint-SaŽns’s score even when it is at its most dense. Thus, in considering one particular passage, even Mr Bovet concedes that the organ “does not lend itself at all to such fast repeated notes, so that they can only be literally adopted in exceptional cases, and we have done so only incidentally and briefly… But in general it is not feasible…”

Meanwhile, in order to bring the enhanced organ part more to the fore, the composer’s orchestration has been considerably thinned out, allowing the piece to be performed by a small-scale band. The musicians utilised on this occasion are the Capriccio Baroque Orchestra, described in the CD booklet as “one of the most renowned baroque orchestras in Switzerland… with a special devotion [to] newly discovered or rarely played works”. Just how small the CBO is, though, isn’t entirely clear. The orchestra’s own website displays one photograph including just 14 musicians, another showing 15 and makes reference in its text to 23. Meanwhile, this new CD’s booklet includes a photograph of 22 players presumably hard at work on the symphony. All these numbers seem terribly small in the context of a major orchestral piece from the late Romantic era, but the booklet notes avoid any suggestion that any extra players were conscripted for the occasion.

Whatever the case, the recording of the orchestra is well-balanced and very clear. It may be obvious that we’re not listening to the likes of the plushly-upholstered Boston Symphony Orchestra in its famous account under Charles Munch (in the view of my colleague Paul Shoemaker, still “one of the finest performances and recordings of any piece of music ever done” - review), but recording engineer Christoph Martin Frommen, with the benefit of the clearly superb acoustics of ZŁrich-Enge’s Reformierte Kirche, has produced a notably well-balanced orchestral account that sets off the newly-enhanced organ part superbly well.

Expert recording also flatters the two filler tracks on this disc. Saint-SaŽns’s op. 37 Romance was originally written for flute (or violin) and orchestra, while his op. 6 Tarantella was composed for flute, clarinet and orchestra. Both are presented here in arrangements by organist Ulrich Meldau in which his own instrument replaces the orchestra. The resultant new sonorities make a real difference to the impact made by each piece. In the case of the Romance, the organ’s prominent role in support of a single flautist means that it emerges as less romantic in atmosphere than strikingly ecclesiastical, with the rearrangement conveying an impression, perhaps, of sitting in a rather dusty church where a funeral has just taken place and the congregation is sitting in quiet contemplation of the deceased. In the Tarantella, on the other hand, while the organ’s prominence is reduced by the addition of a clarinet to the mix, its participation inevitably slows the rearrangement down so that the dance is not delivered in an appropriately manic manner (the word tarantella is derived, after all, from the mania supposedly induced by a tarantula’s bite). Both pieces are, though, very well performed and are a pleasure to hear for the first time in their current form.

At just 53 or so minutes in length, this is not a particularly well-filled disc. It is, nevertheless, an enjoyable one. Personally speaking, I’ve always admired the symphony in its original version but it can only be a good thing if Mr Bovet’s imaginative initiative endears it to those who, like my colleague Stephen, have hitherto been immune to its appeal. Let’s also, while I think of it, gratefully recognise that the new version’s arrival will allow a myriad of depressed organists to finally cast off all that guilt and frustration at not working hard enough in Saint-SaŽns’s most popular symphony.

Rob Maynard

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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