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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op 78, Organ Symphony (1886) [37:00]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani in G minor, FP93 (1938) [23:47]
Iveta Apkalna (organ)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live 2019, Philharmonie im Gasteig, MŁnchen
BR KLASSIK 900178 [60:47]

The opening of Saint-SaŽns’s Organ symphony in Mariss Jansons’s hands is all suggestion: expressively falling strings and rising, then falling, woodwind in the brief Adagio introduction, then a first theme in the strings in the Allegro moderato main body of the movement whose feathery nature he emphasises. This is very pleasant and altogether disguises that it is the first appearance of the work’s motto theme, the first four notes of the Gregorian Dies irae chant which Saint-SaŽns here admittedly hides within a stream of semiquavers. The Lisztian transformation of the motto, which is what all the themes in this work are, becomes crystallized in the statement from cor anglais and oboe (tr. 1, 2:17) and then quite quickly climaxes; but somehow Jansons gives it a rather studied manner. Nevertheless, there is ample softening for the nicely inflected, smooth second theme (3:25), a typical Saint-SaŽns’s suave and comforting one on first violins, repeated by woodwind; again, its fiery continuation I feel is less effective. The first clear reference to the Dies irae comes from the first and third trombone (4:09), to which two horns are added next time (6:03) and then, most prominently, trumpet too (6:13). By then you are likely to recognize the chant from its outing in the finale of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Meanwhile, there comes Saint-SaŽns’s third theme, on violins with the assistance of oboes and flutes (5:40). Jansons makes it Mendelssohnian and beguiling but for me his recapitulation of the first theme in the strings should be more rugged, though the woodwind counter cries are clear and the second theme recap in Jansons’s hands is lullingly dreamy.

My comparison is the 1959 recording by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Charles Munch, with organist Berj Zamkochian at the Symphony Hall organ (BMG 09026615002, download only in the UK at the time of review). You will find this a pretty constant benchmark in MusicWeb reviews against which other recordings, even if sonically more blooming, are found wanting. And so, though not altogether, it is here. In a word, Munch has more edge throughout. There is more poetic and emotive expectancy about his introduction. In the main body, the first theme has more tingling restlessness and urgency of progression. His working to the first climax seems to evolve more naturally and that climax, as are his all, is more fiery. Jansons’s second theme is more beauteous and his third also more lovely than Munch’s, but in the latter, you might prefer Munch’s careworn quality. There is more of a driving force to Munch’s first theme recapitulation, while his comely delicacy in the second theme recap is arguably as effective as Jansons’s dreaminess.

The Poco adagio serves as a slow movement, though actually the second part of the first section of the work, of which we have had ten minutes without an organ. On its appearance, it has a sensitive role of always soft chordal support to the orchestra, stylishly discreet as Iveta Apkalna creates a backcloth of sanctity. I like Jansons’s approach to this movement because he avoids making it over-romantic and lush. Its main theme starts cool and probing with the strings in low tessitura, and it progresses, the Poco aspect observed. In its repeat, the hushed strings have a lovely blend with the unusual yet impeccably regal combination of clarinet, two horns and two trombones; the sudden softening, on its first two appearances at the apex of the melody, is sensitively realized, and thereby does not seem affected. The violins go in for semiquaver filigree work and then the violas and cellos elaborate this. Jansons’s refined handling of the climax, a smooth, sunny rendition of the main theme by first violins, violas and cellos, is better than his Allegro moderato climaxes, having a Tchaikovskian intensity and attractive inevitability.

This movement’s music is that of adoration, but of what? Jansons’s interpretation suggests a religious context. Munch’s main theme, rich and warm from the start, is something a little more worldly, even though Berj Zamkochian has more presence than Iveta Apkalna. In the main theme repeat, Munch conveys ardent wandering while his wind combination, less sophisticated than that of Jansons, seems more a motley collection of every type of humanity. Munch’s addition of violas and cellos to the violins’ filigree work is more determinedly purposive, and his climax thereafter more edgy than Jansons’s.

The second section of the symphony begins with the Scherzo. It is the most symphonic movement and most modern-sounding in its constant interplay between strings and woodwind, the former with lots of semiquaver articulation. I think of DvořŠk, though Jansons keeps the rhythms crisp rather than rugged. What is like DvořŠk is the attempts at a theme to accompany and complete the main one, notably by the second violins and violas (tr. 3, 0:52 to 0:58). The substantial Trio, more fairy-like, features a pianist who has waited 21 minutes to play. Its second theme, in the strings (2:23), is a cajoling Tchaikovskian one against an insistent woodwind accompaniment. At the return of the Trio, a new theme starts to gear up in the brass, actually a disguised gentler version of the Dies irae, sanctified by strings and woodwind, after which comes a big organ chord, and it is the finale.

Jansons gives us a polite Scherzo and Trio, which I like. Munch gives us a Scherzo which is more a swirling mass with some spite, his Trio a heady relief, a feverish celebration with the Tchaikovskian theme a delirious vision. It is not at all pleasant, but gripping.

Though only marked f, the finale’s big organ chord would benefit from more impact than Apkalna conveys for Jansons, as Zamkochian supplies for Munch. But Apkalna and Jansons get into a sturdy and grand routine. Soon a second pianist, after a 28-minute wait, joins the first, so creamy ripples accompany the organ and strings. Next, it is the strings in gumboots capped by brass fanfares, but a good test of orchestral and recording clarity is whether the woodwind scream at the end of those fanfares, particularly the piccolo and first flute in stratospheric super-top G, can be heard. In Jansons no, in Munch yes. Jansons is more attuned to the poetic than the dramatic elements of this work. What he does gorgeously is the smoothest variant of the Dies irae motif (tr. 4, 2:46), beautifully passed around in solos for all the woodwind and horn, and later in a soft, angelic version on the violins. Jansons and his orchestra really enjoy this and you feel so did Saint-SaŽns. On the other hand, Jansons plays the brief fugato (2:09) a bit safe and relatively dull, where the brisker Munch throughout is exciting, timing the finale at 7:40 to Jansons’s 8:55 before applause. The splendid peroration of the work is the C major resurrection of the Dies irae motif, first on the strings, then the wind. Apkalna and Jansons satisfy here, excepting for two more instances of orchestral clarity where Munch again shines: the presence of the bass drum and crisp articulation, every note to be accented, of the great timpani solo just before the end. Munch’s proves the more thrilling and exultant finale.

I had not remembered until I started listening for this review what a stunning coupling Poulenc’s Organ Concerto is, both telling in its similarity and difference. Similar: it follows the same trajectory from disquiet to assurance. Different: the disquiet in the Saint-SaŽns is contained, has its own space and is finite; in the Poulenc it is intrinsic and liable to reappear at any time. The world is relatively secure world in 1886, less so in 1938 and 2020. Another difference, of course, is that the Poulenc is absolutely a concerto,. The organ is solo presenter and initiator of much material. Interplay with the sparer accompaniment, only strings and timpani, is another feature. The limited instrumental palette turns out to be a strength in terms of the dramatic concentration of relative lack of colour.

The concerto’s single movement is divided into seven phases, separately tracked on this CD. Phase 1 is an Andante (tr. 5), whose big chords and florid fingerwork interspersed could be a Bach toccata. Poulenc enjoys giving the upper strings a sforzando to ff and trill to goad the organ to more bristling, awe-inspiring stuff, but a very soft and intense passage in upper strings provokes an organ meditation, while darker material from the cellos in turn results in massive, grinding chords from the organ. Already Apkalna and Jansons create much contrast here, but most memorably there is a very soft upper strings passage and the pathos of the haunted wish for grace in Apkalna’s meditation.

My comparison are again Zamkochian and Munch recorded in 1960 (Sony G010003548931K, download only in the UK at the time of review). Munch’s upper strings are more emotive, longing, the cellos more biting and ominous, yet Zamkochian’s meditation has a more objective, probing beauty.

Phase 2, Allegro giocoso (tr. 6), is a pretty grim scherzo within which the organ contributes wave-like falling and rising, the whole an exciting fermentation ending with ffff from the strings. Jansons provides neat articulation, but lacks the electric, scintillating fervour and urgency of projection that Munch achieves without detriment to clean interplay between strings and organ. In the more diffuse, ruminating Phase 3 Andante moderato (tr. 7), Apkalna’s meditation has turned suavely relaxed and Jansons’s strings echo in a courtly dance, vaguely renaissance but with 20th century harmonies. Then something very soft yet more melodic arises from the violins in high register, which for me hints at the comedy of the first movement of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. This tries to become more purposeful in uneasy sequences. It gets slower, more refined, emotive and nostalgic, then turns grimmer. Zamkochian starts this phase with more character, more bounce and nonchalance even in the organ’s relaxation. Munch’s strings’ dance is more rugged, his Prokofiev-like theme more playful. Both convey more sense of direction.

At Phase 4, Tempo allegro. Molto agitato (tr. 8), the opening mood looks to be returning but is more distraught in both organ and strings, a disturbing maelstrom for all the somewhat objective formality of Apkalna and Jansons’s presentation. Zamkochian and Munch engulf you in a frenzied progression. The timpani come in heavily in support of the organ solo, killed off by an intense descending, agonizing ff phrase then softening in the strings rather reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s Pathťtique Symphony. Now in Phase 5, all is TrŤs calme (tr. 9), Apkalna (as marked) ‘very sweet and clear’, Jansons’s first violins careworn yet gentle and consoling, but the murky backcloth from the other strings is disturbed and the organ responds to this in heavy chords. Zamkochian and Munch deliver phase 5 with more heart-on-sleeve directness.

In Phase 6, the Tempo de l’Allegro initial (tr. 10) mirrors the Phase 2 scherzo equally memorably, Apkalna is carefree, with a determination to be as cool and dispelling sad times as can be. Zamkochian, however, presents this as mayhem, an imperative, not like Apkalna to escape, but to be frantic. Phase 7, Tempo Introduction (tr. 11), returns to the piece’s opening, yet now with a simpler, more chaste organ solo from Apkalna which leads into a smooth, homely version of Phase 6’s manic theme to accept things can turn out well. Zamkochian and Munch have a greater distance to travel to this outcome, requiring more inwardness in Zamkochian’s solo after his authoritative opening, while Munch transforms the manic theme into a tender memory. In both recordings, the brief coda allows the organ a last majestic flourish and the orchestra a final yell, but of what? For me a fighting defiance from Jansons, which here I prefer to Munch’s incisive termination.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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