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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Toccata Festiva, Op 36 (1960) [15:42]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani (1938) [25:13]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No 3 in C minor, ‘Organ’ (1886) [38:01]
Olivier Latry (organ)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. live, May 2006, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
Pdf booklet included
ONDINE ODE 1094-5 SACD [78:53]

Given the dearth of new releases during the pandemic, I’ve resorted to scouring the back catalogue for morsels I might have missed. And what fun it’s been, with a lengthening list of releases awaiting review. High among them is this live Philadelphia/Eschenbach recording from 2006, with Olivier Latry, the distinguished French organist, as soloist. I was much impressed with the latter’s performance of the Saint-Saëns, recorded with Pascal Rophé and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège two months after this Philly one (Cypres). But the coupling, Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante turned out to be the bigger treat. (Now there’s a piece that should be much better known.)

For some time my top choice for the Saint-Saëns and Poulenc has been a live recording made at the newly renovated Royal Festival Hall in March 2014. It features Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the LPO and organist James O’Donnell in fresh, beautifully paced performances of both works. The sound is equally attractive, the refurbished organ especially well caught (London Philharmonic). I’ve yet to hear a first-rate recording of the Barber, although the one with Raymond Leppard, the English Chamber Orchestra and the esteemed British organist Dame Gillian Weir is decent enough (Linn CKD 178 - DL Roundup, September 2009). That said, Tonbridge School’s modest Marcussen is dwarfed by the Kimmel Center’s 6,938-pipe, 111-stop Dobson, currently the largest mechanical-action concert-hall organ in the US.

Commissioned for the inauguration of a new organ at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, the Toccata Festiva was premiered by Paul Callaway, Eugene Ormandy and his fabled band in September 1960. It’s a highly inventive and engaging piece – it’s quirky, too – which Latry plays with all the panache one would expect of him. But while he can certainly turn up the wick when required, he also knows when to turn it down, and that’s very welcome in quieter passages. As for Eschenbach, he’s a wonderfully intuitive accompanist who elicits glowing responses from his orchestra. As for the engineers, they’ve provided a spacious, detailed and believably balanced recording that puts the listener in one of the hall’s very best seats. Indeed, this sensible, beautifully choreographed performance is all the more rewarding for not succumbing to excess. I was bowled over by the array of colours and ear-tweaking timbres thus revealed, not to mention the seemingly effortless nature of those floor-shaking tuttis. The snare and bass drums, cymbals and tam tam are superbly rendered as well. And what a finale it is, a glorious panoply of seat-pinning sound. Really, I can’t imagine the piece better played and recorded than it is here.

The Poulenc concerto is even more satisfying, the performance brimming with Gallic wit and charm. It’s also a reminder of just how sensitive a performer Latry is, his playing quite ravishing at times. Eschenbach and his band are in rapt and responsive attendance throughout, while the very transparent recording adds immeasurably to one’s enjoyment of the piece. Any caveats? Well, some rivals find a little more ‘bounce’ in this music - O’Donnell and Nézet-Séguin are pretty good at that - it’s Latry and Eschenbach who uncover the detail and nuances others tend to miss. However, these LPO and Ondine releases have something important in common: a reassuring sense of a shared and equal enterprise whose priorities are entirely musical. Anyone who knows and loves this piece should hear them both.

In this, Saint-Saëns’s centenary year, I’ve been reminding myself that, despite the ubiquity of his Third Symphony, he’s not just a one-trick pony. (His piano concertos have given me much pleasure of late, several of them very well played by a group of up-and-coming artists, Louis Schwizgebel and Alexandre Kantorow among them.) No doubt, there are those who think this warhorse is ready for the knacker’s yard. I’ve felt something similar after hearing yet another routine reading, only to discover a very good one that proves there’s life in this spavined old beast yet.

The opening bars of the Philadelphia performance are beautifully calibrated, those pizzicato figures elegantly done, all of which is most encouraging. Eschenbach seems to have found the tempo giusto already, the orchestra sounding as refined as one could wish. Those silken strings are a special delight. As for Latry’s first entry, it’s magical, rather like Gaston Litaize’s memorable opener in the classic Daniel Barenboim/Chicago Symphony recording from the 1970s (Deutsche Grammophon). Again, I was struck by the sheer naturalness of Ondine’s presentation; underpinning pedals are discreet yet powerful, while the airy, uncluttered mix allows even minor contributions – the piano, for instance to be discerned with ease. Such felicities wouldn’t count for much if the performance weren’t so compelling, so sure-footed. Eschenbach ensures climaxes are proportionate, and the organ, very much an equal partner here, never swamps the orchestra. As so often, such a carefully scaled approach seems all the more thrilling for being so. That’s certainly true of the mighty Dobson, unleashed in the closing pages. This finale is simply overwhelming - in the best sense – the Philadelphia percussionists showing mettle at last. This is now my go-to version of the symphony. In fact, that accolade applies to its companions, too.

Unassailable performances, superbly recorded; a must for your desert island.

Dan Morgan


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