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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 ‘Organ’ (1886) [37:00]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto in G minor for organ, strings and timpani (1938) [23:47]
Iveta Apkalna (organ)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 11-15 March 2019, Philharmonie, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900178 [60.47]

It is not uncommon for these two renowned and indomitable French works for organ and orchestra, written by Saint-SaŽns and Poulenc just over fifty years apart, to be coupled on a single CD; here on BR Klassik they are played by soloist Iveta Apkalna with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons, recorded just eight months before the conductor’s death.

The feature work on the disc is Saint-SaŽns Symphony No. 3 ‘Organ’ from 1886, a commission by the Royal Philharmonic Society of London. Saint-SaŽns, the organist at the Madeleine Church, Paris, conducted the premiŤre himself in St James’s Hall, London. Especially admired for its glorious themes, the score, while containing some novel features, could never be classed as ground-breaking. Cast in two parts, it has four conventional movements and is dedicated to the memory of Franz Liszt who had died in the year of its completion. Iveta Apkalna is in captivating form, giving a performance which intersperses undoubted devotion with fortifying vitality and provokes splendid playing from the orchestra. A highlight of the work is the resonant, rumbling organ entry in the Poco adagio followed by a suitably introspective discourse between it and the strings. The acclaimed Finale: Maestoso – Allegro provides a sense of elation as Apkalna’s organ bursts into life, producing cascades of vivid colour.

Like Saint-SaŽns, Poulenc was a Parisian but unlike the illustrious older composer the origins of his renowned concerto for organ began not in the organ loft but with the accidental death of Pierre-Octave Ferroud in 1936. This event was a watershed for Poulenc, the start of a religious journey that would lead him to write this concerto scored for organ, strings and timpani. It could be said to connect the sounds of a church organ with the humour of the circus or carnival. Completed in 1938, the score was dedicated by Poulenc to its commissioner, the renowned arts patron Winnaretta Singer. It is written in one, continuous single movement with seven sections. Apkalna’s fine performance demonstrates her profound understanding of Poulenc’s score. Its disturbing undertow of foreboding adds to the sacred character of the Andante; by contrast, the animated Allegro giocoso reminds me of a chase scene from a madcap movie.

Under Jansons, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks plays with tautness and concentration, giving first class performances. Throughout both works, Apkalna plays the Klais organ (1985) from the front of the Philharmonie stage, using the electronically controlled mobile console. The instrument certainly makes a glorious sound and together with the orchestra has been successfully recorded live at Philharmonie, Munich with satisfying clarity and balance. Audience applause at the conclusion has been retained but there is virtually no extraneous noise. 

My first-choice recording of a single CD which includes both Saint-SaŽns ‘Organ’ Symphony and Poulenc’s Organ Concerto are the passionately romantic 2014 accounts recorded live at Royal Festival Hall, London from the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Yannick Nťzet-Sťguin featuring organist James O’Donnell on the LPO label (review). However, for an individual recording of the ‘Organ’ Symphony, top of the pile is the thrilling 1959 Boston account together with its remarkable sonics. Organ soloist Berj Zamkochian is conducted by no lesser figure than Charles Munch with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on RCA Living Stereo SACD (review).

Iveta Apkalna performs these Saint-SaŽns and Poulenc scores with sparkle and resolve yet doesn’t quite displace my personal favourite recordings.

Michael Cookson

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