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Reviews: Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 - Latry, Eschenbach

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Reviews: 7

Review by Arthur February 11, 2007 (11 of 12 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
I purchased both the Munch and Barenboim Saint-Saens discs and although they both have their points, I still was searching for a Third I could really get behind. When this one was announced coupled with the Poulenc, I knew it was a must buy. But is it a must hear? In a word, Yes!
I should say straight away that I don't have much to say about the Barber: I've heard other recordings but have never really become engaged with the work. This recording certainly does it justice sonically, but as to the performance, I'll leave that to those who know this work better than me. Let me just say that I enjoyed it, something I've never really been able to say before.
But the Poulenc is another matter. It has been a favorite of mine for years and I've listened to probably a dozen recordings in that time. I'd always enjoyed Martinon's Erato reading, but I've been hoping for an SACD in state of the art sound as well. The Gillian Weir definitely did not fill that bill: the pace was rushed and the strings sounded barely capable of keeping up at that pace. It wasn't that well recorded either. This new version is a huge step forward. The pacing is maybe a little slower than I've been used to, but everything is clearly articulated, and in the soft passages especially there is magic in the interaction of the strings and the organ. The final passage in the strings (before the conclusion with organ) had me shivering with goosebumps, the playing was so intense and meaningful!
So what about the main course? Well, again to start out, the pacing is slow. The rather syncopated rhythms in winds and strings that form the back drop to much of the first movement is slow, but extremely clearly articulated. At first I felt a ltttle disappointed. I expected something a little more forceful. But as the movement progressed it sped almost imperceptibly, so that by the time the horns enter at 7:40 there is an intense excitement in the air. This reminded me almost of Furtwaengler in the subtle change of pace. The slow movement was also quite magical. Again the soft passages were probably more telling than the loud ones. For me a performance that makes me feel the musicians are approaching it as if it is chamber music is usually going to be a performance I am going to like. And this is certainly the case here. The third movement was kind of a shock after the first two movements: it definitely felt too fast. But again, as I got used to the approach it started making sense. This is a true scherzo. The finale was another piece with subtle gear changes. Another writer commented on a jarring speeding up in the coda, but to me, this felt perfectly judged.
How is the sound? I have been listening recently in 4.0 (since my wiring had to be altered after some remodelling), but it sounded quite good. It is definitely mastered at a very low level: I had to turn my system up louder than I've ever used it just to get a natural sound, but once set to that level it sounded exactly that: natural. The organ had power and majesty when called for, but also set off most of the sublime slow soft string playing in the second music by it's quiet, but insistent pulse. For the ultimate expereince, I listened in 2 channel with headphones. For me this was even better. Everything sounded perfectly natural and beautifully balanced.
Losing Eschenbach is going to be a shame for Philadelphia!

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Review by krisjan February 12, 2007 (4 of 5 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
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Review by sperlsco February 20, 2007 (12 of 14 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
I listened to this in multichannel SACD and found it to be an unbelievable experience. In fact, when I listen to this symphony, I want to come away from it feeling like I had a memorable experience. This is one of the few versions that pretty well satisfies me (along with the Barenboim/Chicago one). However, I can definitely see someone being put off by the eccentricities in overall tempo -- not me though. As a full piece, I like what Eschenbach is doing. Everything seems to flow very naturally and have a purpose, with the possible exception of the beginning of the second part (third movement if you will), which still works fine albeit being a bit jarring to start. In the finale, Eschenbach's accelerando into the coda is perfectly felt and absolutely thrilling (and why should it be any other way?). The organ is really superbly captured, and the brass pales only in comparison to the Chicagoans. The Philly trumpets seem to lose a little steam at the very end, but that is just picking nits. Ondine's sound is very realistic, clear, sharp, and full bodied. The organ sound can be absolutely roof and window rattling, but also very nuanced and clear.

Now do not, I repeat DO NOT listen to the Munch version after the Eschenbach, like I did. I really do like the Munch, but the RCA Living Stereo sound does not hold a candle to the stunning sonics from Ondine. I was previously impressed by the Munch organ, but it is absolutely no comparison to the realistic and roof rattling Philly one. I also listened to the SACD from the ATMA label by the Orchestra Métropolitain du Grand Montréal. It got a 10/10 from DH at Classics Today. It is a decent straight forward version, but I cannot see giving it a 10/10. The organ is no better than decent, as is the orchestra. I give the recording no extra credit for featuring a third-tier orchestra that is giving its best. Perhaps the orchestral balance is the key to the classical interpretation about which DH speaks, but it is NOT how I want to hear this symphony. In particular, the Montreal brass just do not cut it.

Would I have liked the Eschenbach one to have more normal tempos, featuring the same stunning sound, same playing, and same organ -- well ... perhaps (as long as it still contains the thrilling accelerando at the coda). But I will happily take this one. It is definitely an interpretation -- and one that I loved!

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Review by Oakland March 1, 2007 (11 of 13 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
With yet another review of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eschenbach, Saint-Saens, Poulenc, Barber, works for organ and orchestra will soon be in overload with impressions on this impressive release. And with good reason. I can think of no disc with which I have had such heightened anticipation since I first began purchasing SACDs in 1999 than this one. Of course, this level of anticipation can be the main ingredient to harsh disappointment. But be assured the thunderous audience applause (yours truly included) after each performance validates the sheer excitement of this monumental achievement of Eschenbach, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and Olivier Latry, the organist.

Yes, I do have explicit reservations about the main draw on this disc, the Saint-Saens “Organ Symphony”. But let me say upfront, don’t postpone happiness. Get this disc right away.

For me even upon first listening Barber's "Toccata Festiva" and Poulenc's "Organ Concerto" are an unqualified success. The only other reference I have for the semi-obscure Barber is the Linn recording (please see comments on the "Toccata Festiva" and "Organ Concerto" at: /showuser/1934).

I immensely enjoyed the Linn recording of the Barber (but not the Poulenc) but the Ondine recording improves on every aspect including an even more genuine capture of an American "vernacular" feel by the Philadelphia Orchestra (after all Barber wrote this piece for *this* orchestra) and even trumps the Linn in the organ power department (the Linn organ is no slouch).

The Barber is a real find. But for its short (16 minute) stature it’s worthy of a main attraction. For those who are not familiar with this work I believe your’re going to love this. To be sure it’s a sonic block buster, one that lives up to all that label entails. But it’s hardly all brawn. It surprisingly reveals an abundance of inspired melodies and instrument interplay that while easy to grasp are not at all pedestrian. Wonderful music (as are other Barber compositions I am familiar with)!

I do have 5 or 6 recordings of the Poulenc "Organ Concerto" and have heard it live (plus rehearsals). I was not happy with the SACD Linn recording of this concerto even though I "tried" to like it. The Philadelphia Ondine recording addresses every weakness that I cited in my comments on the Linn recording. In addition, this Ondine recording has a much better balance of the rear presentation (multi-channel, of course). The Linn recording had too much organ action going on in the rear (even though I understand that the organ is *supposed* to be dominant in the rear). The Ondine Poulenc recording is the very best I've heard, regardless of format, with respect to tempo, tension, balance (very difficult not to overwhelm the strings and timpani) sheer power and sound. The Linn recording is superior in capturing the timpani but it (the Linn) is top tier in this regard.

OK, now for the main draw of this disc, the Saint-Saens “Organ Symphony”. After 6 listens now I had been going back and forth (but mainly forth) on this performance. As one who is familiar with many other interpretations I have found the Eschenbach interpretation to definitely be “an acquired taste”. Tasty it is. But while it is steadily growing on me it’s still not “there”. The interpretation of the first three sections is “different”. Let me put it this way, if Eschenbach's interpretation is "correct" then *every* other interpretation I have heard (10 or 11 including Barenboim, Munch, Fremaux, de Waart, Martinon, Ormandy, Badea, etc.), recorded and live, must be wrong. Yet I'm compelled to listen again!

The first three sections (the first two sections of the first movement and the first section of the second movement) leave me nonplussed. The tempos of these first three sections seem off kilter if not plain wacky. The first two sections are slow/deliberate/somewhat lethargic (compared to other interpretations). On first listen these sections were almost sleep inducing (OK, I admit upon first listening I had just returned from a thumpin' late night George Duke [the dean of funk] concert that had drained much of my resources). But at the same time I found the methodical pace of the first two sections to be an intriguing build up, of sorts, for the following sections, especially the colossal finale.

But then, giddy-up! With no further ado the third section (Allegro moderato) bolts to a jarring gallop. I immediately thought of a cavalry at full charge or Casey Jones at the throttle determined to make up for time lost during the first two sections. But this was not a thrilling ride. Certainly, I thought, at minimum, this would serve to undermine the enormous force of the finale.

But the finale is not compromised in any way. This is a holds no bar performance. No doubt this finale is powerful, on point, stupendous and brilliant. The performance is as stellar as any I have personally experienced and, as what I was expecting, the sonics are without peer for this symphony.

With respect to the “Organ Symphony” the shortcomings of the other sections notwithstanding, the finale done exceptionally well, saves the day, and makes for a successful performance. Right? After all, the “Organ Symphony” finale done well is not beholden to the rest of the symphony, even if the performance of the previous sections do not meet expectations. Right? Maybe. But in this case I was not so sure. I found it utterly perplexing that the first three sections were done with a “twist” and the fourth section is suddenly straight arrow classic, albeit extremely well done. It’s almost as if there was a change in conductors during the pause of the third and fourth sections. After the first listen I said to myself what an enigma, this performance is irreparably disjointed. But on subsequent listens my impressions have slowly changed.

And with my last listen (a few minutes ago) I just said to myself “Listen to yourself! What are you complaining about? You’re reading too much into this. There is so much to enjoy about this performance and the sound is unimpeachable. Just enjoy it and be happy”. As I submit this post that’s exactly where I am.

Now that my comments on the Saint-Saens are clear as mud what about the recording quality on this Ondine/Eschenbach disc? While there is clearly debate on the merits of the performances, particularly the "Organ Symphony", I believe there will be near unanimity on the recording. In short, this is a triumphant achievement. The engineering is superb. So often I have encountered recordings of this genre where the organ completely overwhelms the orchestra. Indeed, a pronounced criticism of the live performance of the Poulenc and Saint Saens that I attended in San Francisco was *exactly* that. But in these recordings, even though the organ is full range and does not hold back the strings and other instruments are superbly reproduced.

Very few organ recordings capture the visceral impact and majesty that the organ can instill in a live venue. The SACD recordings from JAV Recordings, such as the Wider Mass, Op 36 does it unequivocally (see comments at:. /showreviews/3509#3442 ) Add this Ondine recording to a very short list that I have experienced that meet this litmus test. For example, in the Barber performance the Ondine recording captures the down reaching “throatiness” (upper lower bass above subterranean) of the organ at speed as well as any recording I have encountered.

I would say that overall this recording is “near top tier”, 5 stars for sure, but not quite up there with say, the incomparable Fischer’s Mahler 2 on Channel Classics with respect to overall clarity and near perfection. Nor does it have the depth of stage and rock steady presentation as many Telarc recordings demonstrate.

Finally, I did not know or I had forgotten that this was a live performance and initially found all the noises a bit puzzling and disconcerting during the quiet sections (this is much more of a factor for the Saint-Saens than it is for the Barber and the Poulenc where there are fewer quiet passages). For sure there is an occasional “cough” but the noises are more than that and serve to give the recordings a “vinyl feel” (no offense to vinyl lovers of which I am also one). But I’m not so sure that the audience is the only source for the noises. Another possible/probable culprit could be those ubiquitous wind noises from the organ itself.

You may have gathered that I hold this disc to be a no holds bar tour de force. I easily rate it 5 stars in *both* two-channel and multi-channel for sonics. But an event that features the mighty organ and full orchestra this clearly is a recording best served by multi-channel. In addition to the inherent sound related advantages of multi-channel the numbers too are a decided advantage; 5 or 6 speakers are better than two when handling the tremendous workload demanded by this disc.

Robert C. Lang

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Review by gonzostick December 26, 2007 (11 of 13 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
This recording sounds wonderful and Eschenbach has NO idea about setting tempos in French music. This conductor has a terrible tendency to play slower music at glacial tempos, without really being capable of sustaining the musical line, which Bernstein, wayward as he could be, could do brilliantly, even if being completely wrong-headed about his concept of a particular work. His conducting is stilted and Prussian in the worst sense of the word; mabe even constipated. The Philadelphia Orchestra struggles to play with any sense of ensemble in the scherzo of the Saint-Saëns because he rushes the tempo to such an extreme that, where there should be an even flow of notes, the interplay between sections of the orchestra is fitful instead of smooth and.or precise.

The adagio of the Organ Symphony, while ravishing in sonics, is another failure in pedestrian, gooey tempo. How anyone could mistake Eschenbach for a great conductor speaks volumes about the terrible state of the Classical music business and the phoney-baloney pseudo . Here is a conductor who thinks that depth comes from slug-like slow tempos, not sustaining the musical line. When not sliming his way through a slow tempo, he rushes fast tempi so the music never really settles. This is the herrky-jerrky way of Eschenbach.

The same problem afflicts the Poulenc, a work that I have played in concert and conducted, as I have the Organ Symphony AND the Barber. The balance of inner wit, sadness, and bitter irony completely escapes this conductor and the result is really tragic. The inner connections in the underlying tempos never really happen because Eschenbach really is NOT LISTENING TO HIS MUSICIANS. He is so busy proving himself a genuis by being unmusical and willful, that the overall musical line gets fractured and the performances, with the sole exception of the Barber, never really hang together.

The Dobson organ on this recording sounds absolutely magnificent. The performance of the Barber suffers from the same conductor problem as do the other two, but the work forces Eschenbach to control his erratic, unmusical conducting.

By the way, the Barber Toccata Festiva was composed for the dedication of the Aeolian-Skinner organ in the Philadelphia Academy of Music and was premiered by E. Power Biggs and Eugene Ormandy. That recording was issued only on a CBS LP and also included Biggs, Ormandy, and the Philadelphia playing a very nice performance of the Poulenc. While Biggs rewrote some of the manual passage work because he could not manage the pianistic nature of the notes, the performance is much better than this one, even in spite of the heinous acoustics of the Academy of Music. I corresponded with Maestro Ormandy about his recording while preparing my performance of the work.

To end, this disc is a mixed bag. Idiotic, willful, unmusical conducting, with a gorgeous new organ, building acoustic, and a great American orchestra. This is a horrible misfire that could have been absolutely marvelous. Buy it for the sound and the almost-good Barber. Otherwise, it's a good thing Eschenbach left Philadelphia...

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Review by TheProf August 22, 2011 (4 of 7 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
When I am demonstrating Loudspeakers, this is my number one SA-CD. I have nothing else that tops this, in the sonic capacity. If you have a very good subwoofer, be warned that I nearly broke my windows at high level. The low frequencies extend to 16 hz with ease and makes the whole experience mind boggling. I have left the other details to the other reviewers. I agree with them. If you want a SA-CD to impress people, then this is the one. One thing I like, the performances are live, and I do like the rear channels exploding with applause at the end of the performance, this is a nice touch as you want to clap as well!

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Review by Luukas June 29, 2015 (2 of 4 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Christoph Eschenbach made many acclaimed recordings for Ondine with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The multi-channel (5.0) surround sound added its own dimensions to the approaches.
I have listened this disc several times over the past few months, and I was always very impressed. Olivier Latry was excellent musician. He brought his interesting ideas to the performance. The relationship between the soloist and conductor was perfect here. Eschenbach's tempi were mostly slower than normally - for example the second movement (in D flat major) was the slowest what I have ever heard.
The recording used an old-fashioned audio technology, PCM. The Verizon Hall's acoustics wasn't perhaps the best venue for the compositions. But still this is an impressive example of the Hi-Fi Sound. Highly recommended, especially if you have high-quality speakers.

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