The Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 ("Organ Symphony") is without question the most famous, and most frequently-performed, work in the symphonic repertoire for this pairing of forces. Over the years, it has received the attention of many conductors. A quick search of available recordings shows that most speciaiists in the French repertoire have committed performances to disc: Charles Dutoit, Charles Munch, Georges Pretre, Andre Cluytens, Paul Paray, Jean Martinon, Sir Thomas Beecham, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Jean Fournet, Michel Plasson, Louis de Froment, Louis Fremaux (some of them with multiple recordings).
But, for all that "French specialization," the all-time record for most recordings of this work is held by a Hungarian, Eugene Ormandy. The record (no pun intended) shows that Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded this work at least four times: twice with E. Power Biggs (the first of which, in the mid-'50s, is how I first came to know the work), once with Virgil Fox, and, finally (almost as a "career summation") with Michael Murray on this splendid Telarc CD.
Recorded at a time (1980) when Ormandy was preparing to relinquish his Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director position to his successor, Riccardo Muti, and when the novelty of digital recording was still unique enough that Telarc, in the vanguard of this technology, succeeded in securing recording rights for several major U.S. orchestras (including three of the "big five" if only for a limited number of releases), this performance is the equal of any, and the sound (from an unusual venue for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the St. Francis de Sales Church) remains "state of the art" nearly a quarter-century later. It is, arguably, one of the very best recordings of the Philadelphia Orchestra ever made, irrespective of repertoire. And the Cavaillé-Coll organ installation at St. Francis de Sales is a "near-twin" to the instruments actually played countless times by Saint-Saëns in Paris (at Notre Dame and at the Madeleine church).
Saint-Saëns was both a child prodigy and a composer who lived, and composed over, a long and fruitful life. But he was "only" fifty when he wrote this final symphony of his; all of his subsequent works were in different genres. He thought it a fitting capstone to his symphonic output, and who are we to argue? Composed in 1888, when Johannes Brahms was the leading symphonist of the day and such young "upstarts" as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler were beginning to gain attention, Saint-Saëns's compositional aesthetic for the work (save for the fact that it incorporates the organ) is almost "reactionary" by comparison. It is immediately accessible to virtually anyone, such is its appeal. An adjective often used to describe Saint-Saëns's writing in this work is "suave"; I think this characterization is spot-on.
The Philadelphia Orchestra has rarely if ever sounded better than it does here. Famous for its "silky strings" during Ormandy's tenure, the whole orchestra is a model of refinement so vital for realizing the suave writings of Saint-Saëns; all choirs of the orchestra exhibit this refinement at every dynamic level. The organ-orchestra balances are perfect (clearly, Telarc did a remarkable job in establishing these balances in what is often a tricky venue, that of a rather reverberent church). And the dynamic and frequency ranges of the recording are nothing short of astounding; of present-day "demo" quality despite the passage of a quarter century.
My only complaint about this CD - and it is admittedly one that is "pocketbook dependent" - is that it offers rather a small amount of music for its cost. When it was newly-released (as a fairly early Telarc CD transfer from a 1980 digitially-mastered LP), matters were different, and CDs offering significantly more playing time than this one does were the exception. Nowadays, with 75+ minute CDs a routine matter, this recording - good as it is - should either be remastered to include more music (not a problem, given Telarc's large catalog), or offered as a "super budget" reissue (also not a problem, since Telarc has such a product line). This is the ONLY issue that keeps me from giving this recording a 5-star rating. For interpretive and sonic reasons, it clearly deserves such a rating; it remains the best recording of this work after all these years.