If you want an organ and orchestra, sound-spectacular, look no further than here. If, like me, you listen to your newest Saint-Saen "Organ" symphony by jumping to the start of the fourth movement; well, let me tell you, the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ just about knocked me on my can! It has a huge sound, but - as David Hurwitz mentioned in his less than thoroughly enthused review - there's no hint of steeliness in the tone of this monster; which is my main complaint about the large organs that have been installed at S.F.'s Davies Hall, and Dallas' Meyerson Hall. This one simply tops them. Let's start at the beginning.
I love the Barber "Toccata Festiva". If a recording of it existed with Ormandy, I've never heard it, and don't recall ever having seen it. No matter - it couldn't possibly be better than this one. Think of one of Barber's "Essay For Orchestra" pieces (there are three of them), crossed with the "Wild Hunt" scene from Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder"; then add a giant organ than moves in and out of the foreground - that might give you some idea what this piece sounds like. All that's missing is Schoenberg's rattling of the chains. At 16 minutes, it's a perfect organ inaugeration type work. But what I will admit to you, is that have a very poor basis of comparison on the Poulenc organ concerto. It's not a work that I've warmed to over the years (love the harpsichord concerto: Concert Champetre).
That being the case, I can imagine that the Eschenbach/Latry partnership is a bit less nimble on its feet than some of its highly distinguished predecessors, such as Munch/Boston. Just don't rely on me to do the comparison because I just don't care enough to bother at this point. But neither did I find the performance to be so much of a deterrent, that I was just dieing to get to the Saint-Saens. In fact, I was rather enjoying the bit thicker than usual textures - not something one would want to readily boast about liking in this day and age of "composer's intentions", and all that good stuff. And what of the Saint-Saens?
Well, Dave Hurwitz IS correct in pointing out Eschenbach's idiosyncratic conducting in the S-S. Yes, the poco adagio is about a minute and a half slower than usual, but it didn't bother me in the least bit. By way of comparison, why is it OK for Eschenbach to expand the slow movement of Mahler's 6th symphony out to 18 minutes - marked andante moderato, by the way - but it's such a problem for the poco adagio to be a bit less "poco"; more adagio? Some of the measures actually have a fair amount of arpeggio type noodling going on; so that they stay busy sounding at Eschenbach's slower tempo. I will, on the other hand, point out that his scherzo is so fast, that the sixteenth note articulations get a bit blurred. However, it's nice to hear those ridiculous sounding afterbeat measures - located just a few bars after the movement's initial statement - go by a bit quicker than usual. It might all be a tad frantic sounding, but it IS exciting. Then comes the organ roar from hell - heaven, really. Eschenbach chooses a rather stately tempo that perfectly matches the thick, powerful, sonorous textures that EVERYONE conures up here. I like how the two pianos are balanced: not too close, but not TOO distant either. The combined organ and brass make a sound that has to be heard to be believed. But this also has some of the best cymbal playing I've heard on a CD in a long, long time. Unison cymbal/bass drum strokes make their proper, "knock you out of your chair" effect (imagine what Mahler 2 is going to sound like in Philly!). The ending is spectacular beyond belief.
So, there you have it. If you want your Saint-Saens "organ" symphony to sound more like French Beethoven accompanied by an organ, you may want to just stick with what you already have. But, if you're more like me - an unabshed lover of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (with chorus, canons, bells - everything) - and feel that the full potential of the Saint-Saens has never been fully tapped into on recordings, then you may very well enjoy owning this one as well. I enjoy it for the Barber; the Saint-Saens; the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, and the outrageous playing and sonorities of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I'm happy to say that I don't see this disc as being in any way, a regression in the ongoing Philadelphia/Eschenbach/Ondine series. Far from it.