Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 "Organ” (CD review)

Also, Danse macabre; The Carnival of the Animals; Allegro appassionato. Louis Fremaux, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. EMI Classics for Pleasure 0946 3 82233 2.

This is just a note
in case you're counting the number of times record companies have released
Louis Fremaux's recording of Saint-Saens’s "Organ"
over the years.

EMI first released
the recording in 1972 on their Columbia Studio 2 vinyl label, EMI's answer to
Decca's Phase Four at the time. It was quite a spectacular LP in its day and
recorded, as I remember, in four channels. But EMI never officially imported it
to this country, and EMI's American Angel division never to my knowledge issued
it over here. Instead, Klavier released it on LP in the U.S., Klavier being one
of the country’s smaller record companies and specializing back then in taking
up some of the slack left by the bigger outfits. Appealingly, the Klavier LP
mastering was leaner sounding and in some ways more transparent than the
original EMI. After that, in the late 70's, EMI issued a second LP of the work
in their mid-priced Greensleeve series. This time the sound seemed even warmer
and more bass dominant than before.

Then came the CD era
in the early Eighties, and again it was Klavier who first issued a full-priced
CD of the recording in America. And again the Klavier sonics were slightly more
natural sounding than the subsequent, mid-priced EMI Studio CD that followed it
in the U.S. After that, Klavier withdrew the recording from their catalogue.
Meanwhile, EMI issued it several more times, the recording appearing in a
bargain-priced, two-CD Seraphim set, on a mid-priced Eminence disc, and on the
current Classics for Pleasure issue. In between time, a company called Royal
Classics issued it (1994) coupled with a Dvorak Ninth Symphony conducted by Rudolf Kempe. Interestingly, the EMI
English sound has remained consistent over the years--warm, mellow, bassy, and
robust--just as Klavier's sound filled in a little more of the middle.

Why do I mention any
of this at all? Because Fremaux's performance of the "Organ" Symphony is the only version I have ever felt was
worthy of mentioning in the same breath as Charles Munch's famous 1959 RCA
recording with the Boston Symphony (available on RCA or at extra cost on an
XRCD audiophile remaster by JVC). The Fremaux performance deserves its multiple
releases. The interpretation displays energy, zest, excitement, and grace
aplenty, with a second-movement Adagio
that flows over the listener in soft, warm waves.

My only minor concern at the moment is that if one wants
the absolute best sound in the Fremaux recording, one has to find a used copy
of the old Klavier (LP or CD), and that may be difficult without paying an arm
and a leg for it. Maybe someday one of the audiophile houses--FIM or HDTT,
perhaps--will remaster it, and we’ll have the best of all worlds. In the
meantime, the Classics for Pleasure release contains not only the symphony,
which is brief at well under half an hour, but good performances of the Danse macabre, The Carnival of the Animals, and the Allegro appassionato as well. It’s quite a bargain.


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