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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Introduction and Rondo capriccioso for violin and orchestra in A minor, Op. 28 (1863) [9.33]
La muse et le poète for violin, cello and orchestra, Op. 132 (1910) [16:20]
Symphony No. 3 in C minor Organ, Op. 78 (1886) [35:37]
Noah Geller (violin), Mark Gibbs (cello), Jan Kraybill (organ)
Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
rec. 2013, Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Centre for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, MO, USA

This new Reference Recordings CD provides a fine opportunity to hear the qualities of the Julia Irene Kauffman organ Opus 3875 built in 2011 by Casavant Frères of Montréal. This custom-built instrument doesn’t use an electro-pneumatic action. It’s designed in the French Romantic tradition with a specially designed mechanical (or tracker) action with 4 manuals, 79 stops, 102 ranks and 5,548 pipes.

The feature work is the Symphony No. 3Organ’ from 1886, a commission by the Royal Philharmonic Society of London. Saint-Saëns, himself an organist at the Madeleine Church, Paris, knew what was required for such a work and conducted the première himself at the St James’s Hall, London. Especially admired for its glorious themes the score, whilst containing some novel features, could never be classed as groundbreaking. Cast in two parts there are four conventional movements and it is dedicated to the memory of Franz Liszt who died in the year of its completion and never got to hear it. Clearly delighted by his endeavours with his ‘OrganSymphony Saint-Saëns wrote, “I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have accomplished here, I will never achieve again.” A work I have long admired I treasure having attended an especially memorable performance in 2011 at the Philharmonie, Berlin given by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Leo Hussain with organ soloist Cameron Carpenter. In the Adagio – Allegro moderato Michael Stern’s well balanced opening soon increases in weight and volume. The efforts of the Kansas orchestra are thrilling. Stern engenders a sense of steely determination. The low growling entry of organ in the Poco adagio is notable and the dialogue between organ and strings is delightfully reflective. Conversely the skittering Scherzo is afforded ample amounts of engaging vitality. There is exhilaration in the celebrated Finale: Maestoso – Allegro when Kraybill erupts the weighty Casavant organ triumphantly creating a flood of vibrant colour. This is a powerful and engaging account even if at times the overall performance would have benefited from increased tension especially in the final three movements.

Setting the bar remarkably high are two prime recordings that I will continue to reach for first. Top of the pile is the thrilling 1959 Boston account with its remarkable sonics. This is conducted by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra with organ soloist Berj Zamkochian on RCA Living Stereo SACD. I also savour the passionately romantic account recorded live as recently as March 2014 at Royal Festival Hall, London from the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin featuring organist James O’Donnell. It's on the LPO label. Two other accounts worthy of attention are the admirable 1976 Medinah Temple, Chicago account from Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with organist Gaston Litaize (using the organ at Chartres Cathedral) on Deutsche Grammophon and the 1986 Berlin account from the Berliner Philharmoniker under James Levine and organist Simon Preston recorded at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche/Philharmonie, also on Deutsche Grammophon.

Saint-Saëns composed his Introduction and Rondo capriccioso with the guidance of his friend, distinguished Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, the dedicatee. It's a staple of the violin repertoire and not surprisingly there are a considerable number of recordings. Concertmaster Noah Geller gives a spontaneous sounding and assured performance with a felicitous gypsy swagger. It’s hard to fault the sensitive support Geller receives from the KCS. A mainstay of the recording catalogue I admire the engaging 1977 Kingsway Hall, London account from Kyung-Wha Chung who seems to relish every second of the composer’s inspiration. Chung garners strong support from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Charles Dutoit on Decca.

La muse et le poète for violin, cello with piano accompaniment was composed in 1910 in memory of Mme. J. Henry Caruette of Dieppe, an admirer of the composer. It was Eugène Ysaÿe and Joseph Hollmann that introduced the grand duet in London in 1910. The musical dialogue between the pair of instruments features the cello as the poet and the violin its muse. Saint-Saëns later orchestrated the score into the version played here. One of the few examples of double concerto design this work at times reminds me of the contemporaneous English pastoral style. The work is very much about mood. Its need for two soloists means that it is rarely programmed in the concert hall today. The compelling playing and agreeable string tone of concertmaster Noah Geller and cello principal Mark Gibbs spell romantic refinement. A high point is the glorious playing of the meltingly beautiful theme at 11.28-12.00 (track 2). The recording of La muse et le poète that I turn to first is from violinist Capuçon and brother Gautier an alliance that conveys a ripe tenderness and sense of poetry that fits the disposition of this intimate music like a glove. Splendidly supported by Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Lionel Bringuier this Erato account has the edge over the sensitive 1999 Hamburg account from violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Steven Isserlis accompanied by NDR Sinfonieorchester under Christoph Eschenbach on RCA Red Seal.

Recording engineer Keith O. Johnson excels with his excellent sonics which are crystal clear and well balanced with plenty of presence. This beautifully produced release is a pleasure to own.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan and John Quinn



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