SAINT-SAËNS: “Urbs Roma.” Symphony No. 3, “Organ”* / *Thierry Escaich, org; Orch. Philharmonique Royal de Liège; Jean-Jacques Kantorow, cond / Bis SACD-2470
In my previous review of Kantorow’s recordings of Sant-Saëns’ unnumbered Symphony in A and the numbered Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2, I expressed a desire to hear more from him. This sequel CD seems to be it, a performance of the infrequently-heard “Urbs Roma” as well ad the more famous Symphony No. 3 for organ and orchestra.
As in the case with his first Saint-Saëns CD, Kantorow’s conducting is brisk and clean; his is a no-fussiness, no-frills approach to Saint-Saëns, which brings the composer’s music closer in line to Berlioz than to such Romantic composers as Brahms and Brucker, who were Saint-Saëns’ later contemporaries. There are, as in the first CD, a few moments when I felt that Kantorow was a bit too glib, but not many. He certainly brings the right amount of energy to the project, which puts him in line with Munch and Toscanini rather than some of the more relaxed interpreters of this music, and for the most part it helps greatly in pulling the structure together. This is particularly helpful in the case of “Urbs Roma.” Though his longest orchestral work—even longer than the Symphony No. 3—Saint-Saëns never called it a symphony. And as I suspected from listening to it, with its peppy, gallery-pleasing tunes and jolly forward propulsion, it was written as a competition entry…but NOT for the Prix de Rome. As a blogger at https://saintsaenscomplete.wordpress.com/2014/01/01/symphony-in-f-major-urbs-roma/ put it,
There is no record as to where it was held, what the rules were beyond the strange stipulation that a conventionally named symphony was not acceptable, nor of who won it (it may even have been Saint Saëns, although his prize-winning record was poor), or what the prize was, and it seems that Saint-Saëns himself largely buried the work subsequently, although the theme from the slow movement later was re-used in his music for the film L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908) – which has the notable distinction of being the first film to have a soundtrack specifically composed for it (although, as with anything in film history, this is contested).
In my view, the composer buried this work for a good reason. It is pompous and overblown, two adjectives not generally used in connection with this great musical genius. I suppose Kantorow gets about as much out of it as you’re going to get, and the Royal Liège Philharmonic plays its heart out for him, sadly without improving the music though they surely give it the old college try.
Kantorow also gives us a flashy, taut reading of the “Organ” Symphony. I’m sure that some listeners will liken it to Munch and Toscanini, but to be honest, those older conductors had a bit more give-and-take in the phrasing than we hear on this new recording. Although Kantorow does not miss any of the dynamics inflections and phrases well, raw energy is what mainly impresses you in his reading. The music hurtles and tumbles along with knife-like precision and, yes, a great deal of Berlioz-like energy, and at times this is sufficient to make a good impression. He certainly doesn’t let the grass grow beneath his feet on the podium, that I can assure you, and I really do think that this recording is far too lively to be played on your local classical radio station. At 8:56 in the first movement, he does relax the tempo momentarily, but that’s because it’s in the score. And interestingly, the SACD sonics on this disc are crisp and clear, not muddy and diffuse as in Bis’ new release of Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne (also previously reviewed). In short, it’s a very good performance but to my ears just misses greatness. One thing I will give him and his orchestra, they play with greater precision than Munch’s Boston Symphony…but a little more of the French feeling in the articulation and phrasing would have been welcome.
To his credit, Kantorow does take the slow movement at a nice, relaxed pace, picking up the energy again in the rapid 6/8 of the third movement. So as I say, it’s clearly a good reading of the score, just perhaps a little too brusque here and there for my taste. Thierry Eschaich’s organ is recorded splendidly within the SACD soundspace and makes a great impact upon its 4th movement outburst. The final section of this symphony is absolutely the most exciting version I’ve ever heard; Kantorow pulls out all the stops and the orchestra responds with both beautiful playing and almost unnerving energy.
A good choice, then, if you don’t already have Toscanini’s 1952 stereo FM broadcast. Munch scores over Kantorow in some moments of finesse and delicacy of sound, but he doesn’t come close to Kantorow in that explosive finale.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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